Omega Point by Guy Haley
Ever since the first man picked up a rock and threw it, or used a stick to knock eggs out of a nest high in a tree, we’ve been dependent on tools of one sort or another. No matter how desirable it might seem, it’s too late to return the gift of fire to Prometheus. Fortunately, our present world is still managing to survive without intelligent machines to tell us where we’re going wrong. It will be worse when artificial intelligence becomes a practical proposition. We’ve always been lazy as a species and many will want to surrender what seem to be the routine tasks to the machines. Yet even in the routine there are dangers. The irony is that, basing their decisions on logic rather than emotions, machines could probably deliver a better world. Assuming they have no survival imperative, they are less selfish and would force us to work together — we’ve not proved very good at that over the centuries. But allowing them into a position where they rule us. . . Ah, now that would be a real game-changer and something to be resisted. For better or worse, humanity should always be in control of its own destiny.
Omega Point by Guy Haley (Angry Robot, 2012) takes us into a future world where AIs have become very powerful and some humans have gone through varying degrees of augmentation. In the best cyborg sense, some enhancements have been purely physical. But others have introduced a more complete integration, blurring the line between machine and human intelligence. In its full form, the so-called mentaug produces a personality blend. Obviously, at a conscious level, the “person” understands that there have been changes, but what of the subconscious? Does one side of the mind actually know or understand what the other half wants or can achieve? It’s problematic and, to ensure there’s a reasonable balance, each individual with a mentaug should have regular counselling. It will help to keep both sides working together and the whole mind more sane. For example, it can get strange when the machine side of the brain dreams. Confusingly, human memory changes selectively over time but the machine’s memory is permanent, confirming organic as subjective, machine objective. Is either better than the other? There has to be a way of reconciling meat and machine, yet there’s no guarantee the human can survive.
Of course, from the other side of the fence, there are some pure machine intelligences that are curious about the world and so equip themselves with bodies. They move around and get a better sense of how the world works. Except, of course, these minds always know this embodiment is purely temporary. At any time, whether they tire of the experience or are somehow at risk, they can instantly transfer back into their own virtual reality. They need never feel the real insecurity of being a unique mind in a vulnerable physical body. They can play at being independent. But what would it be like for one of these AIs to be trapped in a fragile body? It might be a bit of an eye-opener what with suddenly feeling hungry and getting an itch in one of those hard-to-reach places.
So we have a twin narrative structure with Otto and others running around the real world (whatever that is) in a kind of spy mode to track down relevant bodies who are messing with the structure of virtual reality. Richards has the indignity of being stuck in a body in a series of semi-surreal episodes in Reality 36 which is made up of remnants from four other virtual realities. Initially k52, their common enemy, had intended to dismantle this Reality and use the servers to accelerate through time to the Omega Point when he would carry out his big reality-warping plan. Except it turned out he couldn’t break through the coding of this Reality. It’s been acting as a kind of drag on his progress through time. So Richards and an unlikely group of toys have been surviving a number of silly encounters with different forms of threat. It’s all going on far too long without saying anything interesting about anything. All we can say is both threads are a quest (not the most original form whether for a book or game) and, inevitably, they eventually intersect (and not before time).
Frankly, Omega Point is a disappointment. Whereas the first Otto and Richards outing in Reality 36 was lively and interesting, this has emerged from the creative process half-baked (avoiding any of the puns that might assault our senses if aerial pirates were suddenly to be attacked by a pastry chef). The thread describing Otto’s part of the quest has the same high-adrenaline pace as the first book. But Richard’s voyage through the disintegrating Reality 36 is almost unreadable in parts and, as a result, I struggled to finish. I don’t mind short books which exploit allegory, surrealism or absurdism. The best efforts cut through the potential pretentiousness by introducing self-deprecating wit. Unfortunately, this is infected with plain silliness. Why is this? I fear the answer lies in the plot and the underlying nature of Reality 36. To avoid spoilers, I need to drop into my own brand of analogy. Those of you who are brave enough to read these reviews will understand that my head is stuffed with a multitude of eclectic facts and out-of-kilter attitudes. Suppose I was connected up to a virtual reality gaming platform and, linked with an AI, created a scenario for people to play. That might all work well so long as I was around to keep explaining the symbolism. But if I should drop out, the rationality of the gaming might go into steep decline as the AI could not replicate my idiosyncrasies. Remember, the theme of this book is the relationship between the human and the machine mind. I get tired of hearing the stuff in my own head without wanting to read endless stuff about what’s in someone else’s. This is not to say this theme is badly treated. In fact, when transferred to Otto’s thread, there’s a tragic backstory unwinding that beautifully captures the debate over what can go wrong and what to do if it does go wrong. So Omega Point is a nicely constructed plot spanning two books but, to my mind, flawed by spending so much time on Richard’s quest in the second.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.