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Crash by Guy Haley

Crash

Crash by Guy Haley (Solaris, 2013) is an interestingly dense science fiction novel. The increasing norm has been for books to build up broad brush strokes of future history, glossing over the mechanics of how humanity arrived in the given situation and the extent to which it was intentional. This novel takes a more nuts and bolts approach to the construction of the near-future start for the story in which wealth has been hijacked by a tiny percentage of the world’s population and the economy shaped to maximise growth of value for that percentage without regard to the needs or interests of anyone else. In effect, the wealthy have taken control of the production of wealth as a commodity, manipulating and controlling investment through a semi-automated Market system, i.e. the Market is theoretically run by artificial intelligence with human math wonks jacked into the system as monitors to detect abnormalities in trends. Technology has advanced along reasonably predictable lines with genetic manipulation able to produce “better” humans or artificially constructed beings of dubious legal status, cybertronics, robotics and AIs create roles for “machines” in key positions, and interstellar space travel possible using colony ships and hibernation technology.

 

At its heart, this book is about the structuring of societies. Starting from the lowest unit size, this is family that grows into kin group that becomes a community. While small, the divergences from the prevailing norms are likely to be small and manageable. But as communities link up to become broader social structures, it becomes more difficult to manage the differences. Some level of conflict is almost inevitable as the usual seven deadly sins pollute relationships. No matter how much we hope people will rub along together, “leaders” emerge and insist on establishing hierarchies. Over time, the paraphernalia of power, privilege and wealth emerges. After that, little can effect change short of a revolution. So that, in a nutshell, captures what this book is ultimately about. If Earth is already stripped of its resources and exploitation of the solar system is not going to provide sufficient resources to make habitable space available for a reasonable quality of life, the only option is to go somewhere else. This represents an opportunity to upend the status quo. Although the existing hierarchy might wish to export itself to a number of colonies where the same social structures are preserved, the interest groups slightly lower down in the hierarchy might see this as an opportunity to sabotage the old and start again. The problem, as always, is that revolution rarely comes without loss of life and hardship.

Guy Haley: a little ray of sunlight

Guy Haley: a little ray of sunlight

 

The title of the book tells it all. With colony starships being built, we watch a shadowy organisation recruit a man to be a saboteur on one ship. It’s not certain but it would be reasonable to assume the process is replicated so that each ship has at least one person who can act. We then watch the man emerge from hibernation at an intermediate point during the voyage and affect the programming of the central computer system running his ship. When people begin to wake several centuries later than they expected, they find themselves in the wrong place and about to crash. The crisis has come with the surviving officers forced to make decisions with the two sons of the family that paid for the ship. This presages the physical and social crash that will change their lives.

 

The problem with all this is that the structure of the narrative is completely unbalanced. Guy Haley spends an inordinate amount of time crashing the colony ship into the planet, but throws away the murder of Karl Njalsson. Are we supposed to think Hwang and the other Market watchers would not investigate the cause of the death, recover what work Karl was doing and see motive? Why is the family background for Dariusz not developed? The way the macro economy works is not explained. Through Karl and Dariusz, we would have had a chance to see how they were able to “buy” what they needed, what services were available, and so on. As it is we have Karl killed and see the suicide of Dariusz’s wife mentioned and forgotten in a paragraph. His son is shuffled on and off stage.

 

Buried in this book is a very good duology but nobody told our author to stop what he was doing and develop the story in a disciplined way. He has a very pleasing eye for detail and can write big set pieces. All he needed was for someone to sit him down and make him see the potential in what he had imagined. The primary driver in the first book should have been the murder and subsequent investigation. We could see the plot developed to recruit people and insert them into the colony ships. The family relationships between Yuri, Leonid and their father could have been set out more clearly, with the roles of Corrigan and the fascinating Anderson brought more clearly into focus. Working along these lines, the first book ends with the death of the police officers investigating the murder of Karl and the colony ships taking off. The second book starts with the crash and then deals with survival on the planet. I blame the editorial staff at Solaris. They knew or ought to have known Guy Haley had taken on all these different writing tasks and did nothing to keep him on track. I suspect all four of the books due this year will show the same lack of focus. Writers should not work in a vacuum. They should have editorial guidance to get the best results. Otherwise, as in Crash, we get ideas thrown out but not developed, we have technology not explained, and we have a macroeconomy introduced but no indication as to how it actually works in lives at different points in the social hierarchy. This could have been a great pair of books but Crash ends up a crash.

 

For reviews of other books by Guy Haley, see:
Omega Point
Reality 36.

 

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

 

iD by Madeline Ashby

iD- Madeline Ashby

iD by Madeline Ashby (Angry Robot, 2013) The Second Machine Dynasty continues the discussion of what constitutes a human — is it just a machine running its software in meat rather than in a fabricated body? Putting this in context, the socialisation process modern humans go through as they grow up in a group environment never addresses the problem. By definition, all those in the group are within the range we consider human. Everything else is an animal or inanimate technology, and there’s no real chance of confusion. So long as the group relates to each member as human, everything else is subsidiary, e.g. whether the human is male or female, abled or disabled, and so on. Of course, there can be problems with the roles it’s considered appropriate for particular individuals to adopt and with questions of interpretation, e.g. on whether women are equal members of society or those of the same sex may marry, but nothing approaches the central difficulty in this series of books.

Here we have androids and gynoids, i.e. machines that can be mistaken for human. It’s even confusing for the machines to know whether they are interacting with another machine or a human. So, for example, a machine might consider a mildly autistic human to be a machine because of the lack of emotional affect. This is an intriguing Pandora’s Box to open. It might lead us to speculate that groups would construct identities and roles for individuals as they appear to be. So if an individual presents as a female, the group could agree to confirm this attribution and to maintain it even if it should later appear this is a machine without any ability to reproduce sexually or, indeed, to engage in sexual activity as a female. This is not to say that the labelling process becomes arbitrary, but it allows each group to make its own decisions on how the members shall relate to each other. I suppose if this was entirely a machine group, they could even consider if it was appropriate to hack one or more individual’s software whether as an upgrade or to enable new abilities. That said, we should remember from the first book that all the “robots” have the potential to be self-replicating regardless of external gender appearance.

Madelaine Ashby — continuing to explore what it means to be human

Madelaine Ashby — continuing to explore what it means to be human

The protagonist of the first book was Amy Peterson. She’s a von Neumann machine and her version of Asimov’s Three Laws has broken down — whether wisely, this culture also aimed to impose a limit on the machines’ ability to harm humans. Amy belongs to a clade of nurses, and to enable her to give practical assistance to injured humans, she taught herself how to stick needles into them and, later, to assist in cutting them open for surgery. Once the door was opened, she eventually became “human” in her ability to wound or kill, but not to feel bad about doing so (a little like her psychopathic grandmother Portia). This made her a target by humans who preferred robots did not have this ability and from other robots who wanted the freedom to dispose of the inconvenient humans. When we start off, Amy and her equally “manufactured” partner Javier are sequestered from the world on her mobile island (perhaps Never Never Land) collecting fissile material as it travels. Although Amy is more than capable of defending herself and the others on the island, there will always come a point when an attack is going to prevail. This reality forces Javier into the foreground. When a subversive priest arrives, Javier is manipulated and left to make mistakes. The results are the destruction of the island and freedom for Portia.

The rest of the book explores the extent to which it would be possible for humans and machines to co-exist. Naturally, having been here first, the humans remain species-centric and prefer the notion of a world reserved exclusively for them or a sharing based entirely on their terms. To that end, they have an ultimate solution (or perhaps I should say solid). There’s also pleasingly ironic news about the genesis of Amy’s capacity for beating the failsafe injunction about killing humans. Looking over the disparate groups making up the machine side, they are still hobbled by the failsafe, and with Amy disappearing with the island, it’s left to Javier to explore options for survival, both for individuals and for machine-based intelligence at large.

I think iD more successful than vN because there’s a greater consistency of tone and pacing. Although there are inevitable contrivances to move the plot forward and make the required allegorical points, the broader narrative leaves the balance between humans and the machines at an interesting tilt. It will be interesting to see where we go next in this original and thought-provoking saga. As a final thought, I should offer a gentle warning of some sexual activity. I think it tame but if you prefer your fiction to be free from different forms of mating, there are passages you might want to skip over.

For a review of the first in the series by Madeline Ashby, see vN.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Summer Wars or Samā Wōzu or サマーウォーズ (2009)

September 13, 2012 2 comments

In modern terms, Summer Wars or Samā Wōzu or サマーウォーズ (2009), directed by Mamoru Hosoda and animated by Madhouse Studios is a story about families, the foundation stone of society. Joining a family is easy when you’re born into one. The obligation to help your relatives by blood is hard-wired into the human species. We consider filial behaviour a key duty, and the refusal to respond to the needs of a parent or sibling unnatural. But the social mechanisms for joining a family are far more complex and the outcomes less certain. It requires real commitment on both sides and shared interests to make it work over the long term. Marriage and the adoption of older children are social institutions. We all understand how they are supposed to work, but the bonds formed in the moment are easily broken, trust is lost, recriminations and feeling a need for revenge are quite common. Even when there’s an emergency, it takes generosity of spirit to overcome the sense of betrayal, for a family to forgive someone who has turned away from it, and for everyone to stand together.

Kenji Koiso (Ryûnosuke Kamiki) asking for help

Kenji Koiso (Ryûnosuke Kamiki) is a shy seventeen-year-old maths genius who naively agrees to accompany the most popular girl in the school, eighteen-year old Natsuki Shinohara (Nanami Sakuraba), to Ueda where the family is to celebrate the ninetieth birthday of Sakae Jinnouchi (Sumiko Fuji), her great grandmother. He’s disconcerted to find himself allocated the role of sherpa, carrying all her baggage on the journey. Worse, on arrival, he’s surprised to be introduced as her boyfriend. Kenji is like most of his peers at school and attracted to Natsuki, but he’s never had the courage to do anything about it. The only reason she holds him out as her boyfriend is to get a little peace from the endless nagging she receives from the family who expect her to marry and contribute to the next generation. She doesn’t see Kenji as a person. He’s merely a convenient bag for her to carry home with her, as something to be shown off on her arm as a fashion accessory.

Natsuki Shinohara (Nanami Sakuraba) recruiting a sherpa

As a family, the Jinnouchis are descendants of a samurai who challenged the Tokugawa clan in 1615. Through time, families in different cultures have only had the strength of the few relatives but, if they formally band together in a defensive unit, their strength rises significantly. That said, the history of Japan is littered with examples of individual samurai or close-knit families who were able to rally support from the community in an emergency. This shows real leadership ability. In this family, great grandmother can pick up the telephone and motivate hundreds of key people to pull together in a crisis. She’s the epitome of the historical figures that could rally the villages to stand together when harvests were bad, or floods threatened, or warlords demanded tribute. Through her, we see a balance struck between the actual strength of an extended kin group and the potential strength of the tens of thousands of people who make up social networks. All it takes to promote the can-do spirit to work together is someone inspirational to reach out and touch the hearts of the people.

The Jinnouchi family stands ready for battle

Wabisuke Jinnouchi (Ayumu Saitō) is an orphan who was adopted into the Jinnouchi family and has repaid their kindness by stealing their money to fund the creation of an artificial intelligence he ironically calls Love Machine. While it’s being tested by the US military, it asserts its independence and infiltrates the Oz network that not only connects major IT systems together around the world, but also operates as a gaming platform. Wabisuke is an older version of Kenji Koiso: both are somewhat introverted but brilliant. Kenji’s only social outlet is working as a moderator and code monkey on the Oz network. He’s merely adequate as a coder but has been picked to represent Japan in the next Maths Olympiad. Separated by age, they represent old and abandoned family loyalties and potential family loyalties based on a misrepresentation.

The dynamic for the narrative is the programmed self-help routines built into Machine Love. As an artificial intelligence, it’s to learn how to fit into and then take control of all the different systems it finds. While this works well when it comes to conventional IT systems, it proves more of a challenge when it comes to avatars on the gaming platform. Although the avatars are merely pieces of code, they represent human beings who object if their virtual identity is stolen. In other words, Machine Love is a metaphor for the process of making acquaintances and forming friendships. You can collect hundreds of “friends” on a social site. Indeed, you can buy “likes” on Facebook through the use of bots and sock puppets. But when the virtual meets the real world, there’s no necessity for the humans to be friends or actually like each other. To show the problem of translating an individual into a virtual person, we’re offered the youngest member of the Jinnouchi family Mansaku (Tadashi Nakamura). He’s physically small and has been bullied at school. Hence, online, he’s become nationally famous as a fighter. He’s King Kazma, the beat-em-up champion and the most devastating rabbit of all time. When Machine Love finds the disconnection between the virtual and the real world, it decides to strike directly at the real world. It takes over the system controlling an asteroid probe sitting in Earth orbit ready to leave, and sets it on a course to crash into a nuclear power plant. If the family did not have a reason to work together before, it has one now.

King Kazma, avatar for Mansaku (Tadashi Nakamura)

As a story about the love people have for each other, both within families and in other relationships, this is a great story showing how problems of alienation can be overcome when the need is great. Indeed, the depth of characterisation is remarkable, showing us multiple generations of the Jinnouchis. The quality of the animation is wonderful, not only when showing us the human world, but also in capturing the essence of the virtual environment. But the plot fails to cohere completely in the second half with far too much time taken up with battles inside the virtual world. This unnecessarily dilutes the strength of the human story. One or two short fights would have been sufficient. Despite this, Summer Wars or Samā Wōzu remains visually arresting and of high quality. It’s well worth watching.

The other two anime films directed by Mamoru Hosoda are:
The Girl Who Leapt Through Time or Toki o kakeru shôjo (2006)
The Wolf Children Ame and Yuki or Okami kodomo no ame to yuki (2012)

Zendegi by Greg Egan

September 7, 2012 Leave a comment

It’s a curious coincidence that this book opens with a problem I’ve been wrestling with for some time. Being one of the dinosaurs, I’m still hoarding my collection of singles and LPs accumulated over the early years. I copied the 78s to tape many moons ago but I worry about how long the tapes will remain playable. Like Martin Seymour in Zendegi by Greg Egan (Night Shade Books, 2010), I dream of digitising all the recordings but find myself lacking the will. My wife has little interest and will not shed many tears if the original recordings are put on to the funeral pyre when my body is finally sent on its way. She’s not a Hindu and, therefore, would not consider sati (or suthi) an appropriate way of celebrating my death. But relieving herself of the option of replaying some of the hits from the 1950s might give her peace in her remaining years.

Anyway, Martin discovers that, unless you carefully check the sound levels on all the records to be transferred to the computer, it’s very easy to end up with wave shaping, i.e. distorted sound. Being something of a perfectionist, that would mean I could not listen to any of the affected tracks. Because he’s pressed for time, Martin makes the discovery after he has disposed of the originals. This loss makes him sad. But, in a more serious way, it also foreshadows the problems explored in this book. It all starts with the efforts of Nasim Golestani to map the part of a finch’s brain that decides what song to sing. She eventually creates a computer model that replicates bird song. It’s not clear how successful this is because it’s a bit difficult to ask real finches what they think of the tone and melody produced by the computerised version. The rest of the book then moves up to artificial intelligence experiments on replicating human abilities. Not unnaturally, there are some rich people who think it would be just dandy to have themselves uploaded and so achieve immortality.

Greg Egan keeps this real in his consistent rejection of the notion it would be possible to make a recording of anyone’s brain waves and so reproduce the human being. The best his scientists can manage is the replication of physical skills in avatars. Zendegi is a gaming platform and the owners make a lot of money out of people wanting to play football and other sports alongside or against their favourite players. Even inducing natural language abilities is fraught with difficulty because, like the bird song, computers have no understanding of how and why each individual note is significant. So avatars can be given access to comprehensive vocabularies but, even with multiple brain scans taken over months, there’s no consistency in the avatar’s performance as the target human. There’s no reasonable prospect of being able to “clone” a human personality by digitising his or her brain waves.

This is not to say that avatars could not undertake routine tasks and so displace the need for human labour. For example, it might be possible to build systems sophisticated enough to replace call centre staff or to perform other tasks not relying on face-to-face contact with real people. In a sense, this is simply extending the displacement of the thousands of administrative and secretarial staff in the management of any business. With software able to take dictation from bosses who refuse to learn how to type, there’s no longer a need for shorthand and typing skills sitting expensively in another office, nor for the clerks who file all the paper copies of correspondence generated, nor for the filing cabinets thereby closing down industrial production and terminating further jobs. All forms of automation seriously limit the need for human workers. Machines are cheaper and, once they have learned the jobs, make fewer mistakes. So, in all this continuing debate about the extent to which real world societies should allow the development of automated systems, Greg Egan is asking and answering some relevant questions.

However, I find it strange he should place most of the action in a near-future Iran. Although it’s certainly relevant to consider whether, in any sense, machines might capture souls, the political backstory to this novel simply gives us a thriller scenario and does not significantly advance the science fiction element. I’m not convinced the Islamic reaction to the phenomenon of avatars in a gaming environment is constructive in advancing the plot. The reaction of the Christians to the Zendegi project and another US-based attempt to create a massive AI capable of running human government is somewhat predictable and not given much space for development. Indeed, the whole tenor of the book is less science fictional than I expected. The first third is more or less a straight thriller about journalism, and the latter two-thirds is the increasingly sentimental story of Martin and his son. Although the two parts of the book do tie together in the relationship between Martin and Omar — initially a neighbour who gets involved in helping Martin get the news — Martin is somewhat self-absorbed as a person and fails to understand the significance of the relationship. He sees surface reality and is not particularly good in assessing the person underneath. As an early incident shows, you can dress up a man in women’s clothing but this does not convert the man into a woman. Gender identity is based on the whole package of the personality, the physical behaviour and the context. Similarly, you can capture features of human behaviour in avatars on Zandegi, but this does not make them human.

So Zendegi is a sentimental journey through life made by a two slightly inadequate people. Neither Martin nor Nasim are particularly successful as humans although they do manage to get things done. They work on a project together and it fails. I think that sums it all up really. The book is good in part but unsatisfying because it fails to really engage with the social and political implications of the work being done. We see it but there’s not enough meaningful discussion of it. The real questions are whether something approximating human is better than nothing and, if what you create is a kind of Frankenstein monster, would it be moral and legal to kill it by wiping it from the server?

For another review of a book by Greg Egan see The Clockwork Rocket.

vN by Madeline Ashby

July 17, 2012 10 comments

vN by Madeline Ashby (Angry Robot, 2012) The First Machine Dynasty is a modern take on The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi, filtered through A.I. Artificial Intelligence, this time dealing with a gynoid rather than an android. It’s a case of “have mind, will travel in search of a soul”, of having to grapple with the problems of self and identity. Initially, her parents slow her physical development so that she grows at approximately the same speed as a human child. Some paedophiles use this system to eroticise young gynoids and so satisfy their own sexual drives, cf Shadow of a Dead Star by Michael Shean (Curiosity Quills Press, 2012). So we start off in the same territory as When Harlie Was One by David Gerrold which is a coming-of-age story about a brain in a box having to learn how to be a “boy” when he has no body. Our heroine has been “born” into a mixed marriage of android woman and human man. Her reduced diet enables her to go to a kindergarten with human children of the same size. Her parents want to give her the chance to experience development over time and to socialise with equally “young” human children. Unfortunately, although the body may be comparable to that of a child, the mind is not. This dissonance is disturbing to those around her. Fortunately, like the Azimovian robots, all these androids also have a built-in safety circuit to prevent them from injuring humans. As a general rule, the failsafe causes them to freeze at the sight of an injured human.

In this book, vN stands for a von Neumann self-replicating humanoid, i.e. all fully-grown androids, regardless of gender, can asexually reproduce. This deliberately undermines the usual female stereotype which is of a body designed to produce children and then take responsibility for their upbringing and homemaking while still playing the role of sex object when the man requires satisfaction. The interesting issue is whether these parthenogenic androids are genuinely gendered or more equal despite being given bodies with the physical characteristics appropriate to their apparent biological sex.

Madelaine Ashby — relieved to be human and not vN

Matching other books and films, these androids are designed in clades for specific functions and so have unique sets of physical and psychological attributes to suit them to their designated roles. Interestingly, the clade to which our heroine belongs was programmed as nurses. This has given her empathy and so, by virtue of her machine-code, she believes in bourgeois happiness for those with whom she interacts, wants to mother a newly “born” android, and seems predisposed to find a male who will love her for herself. Initially, all these androids were created to help and support the few remaining humans expected to be left on Earth after the Last Trump. When this End-of-Days failed to occur, the androids were repurposed as the servants of all humanity. So they are like humans, but now used as slaves without any rights. This book therefore pitches the growing gynoid with her emerging new powers and resident granny against the government and law enforcement agencies that would recall all her clade and trash them to prevent the leakage of any trait that might enable the machines to become more “human”. As an exception to the general Asimovian rule, nurses have a reduced protection circuit. It’s sometimes necessary to cut into humans by way of surgery and other forms of treatment. It would be inappropriate if nurses were to freeze up every time they saw humans being “injured”. It all depends on the context. More importantly, it gives these androids a lower threshold to cross in the decision whether to attack a human.

The problem with this kind of book is that the author delivers escapism. We’re allowed to see all the defects in the given society and then watch the heroine not only survive but beat the system. As in fairy stories, the big bad wolf meets the axe head on and the giant in search of bones to grind for flour is brought down to Earth with a bang. In the real world, humans who occupy the fictional android role are beaten into submission and have no chance of changing anything in our technological world. The only effect when we read books like this is a few hours of satisfaction that one of the downtrodden can fight off oppression. When we put the book down, we return to the real world where we remain powerless. Instead of merely describing dystopias, it would be better if people could be motivated to engage in positive action to change the world. For books to be subversive, to act as a call to action. Except no large corporation as a publisher is ever going to allow revolutionary books on to the mass market. Capitalists guard their hold over the people.

So how does vN: The First Machine Dynasty shape up overall? It actually starts rather well in what we might call action mode. After the initial set-up, she’s off and running, meets up with a serial reproducer and begins an increasingly close relationship with him. But, to my mind, the book loses its way when she allows herself to be captured in the hope she can rescue her parents. The book gets into a more political mode. The issue can be simply put. If the trait now empowering one section of her clade can be reproduced, androids can rise up against their human oppressors and take their freedom. If the humans can eradicate all her clade before this happens, they will remain the “master race”. So there’s an inevitable disagreement between factions both in the human and the android communities. While everyone is squabbling, our heroine and consort, plus his extended family, are offered the possibility of “getting away from it all”. I read through to the end to see how it turned out, but I was less than engaged. Although it’s interesting to see how Madeline Ashby parallels the idea of parents socialising their children with the androids doing the same with their coding of the young, of individuals learning to love each other by overcoming the inbuilt tendency to selfish individualism through trust and “love”, this all becomes less of a dystopian thriller and more of a romance. We’re all supposed to find our heroine’s protectiveness of the little baby ‘droid endearing and go all gooey as he crawls into her lap with adoring eyes. Well, sorry. This is not quite what I signed up for in the android wars to establish independence for AI-kind. So you should only pick this up if you want the mushy side of the rebellion to slaughter all-comers.

For a review of the second in the series by Madeline Ashby, see iD.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

This novel has been shortlisted for the 2013 Locus Award.

 

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.

Guy Haley waiting for the rest of the lighting to be brought to bear

 

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.

 

For reviews of other books by Guy Haley, see:
Crash
Reality 36.

 

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

 

Existence by David Brin

Existence is playing with some big ideas, as you would expect from a book by David Brin (TOR, 2012). Against a fascinating array of problems, the world is having to come to terms with major physical and ethical problems. Just how far should we use technology in protecting selected communities from inundation following global warming when the majority are marginalised at best? Similarly, if there was a way to enhance human intelligence, should this possibility be restricted to the already elite? What would the consequences be if such a development was released to the general population? Then we come to the old chestnuts of artificial intelligence and uplift. If machines did become more self-ware and we created intelligence in “animals”, how should those with access relate to them? For a single world, such questions would be of major importance, but if an alien artifact was discovered. . . Just think of a bottle washing up on our Earthly shores except, instead of it containing a written message, it could talk. That really would be a game-changer, a disrupter of the status quo.

This book describes an Earth on which global warming has done its work, leaving chaos for the majority. The rich survivors enjoy the benefits of sophisticated technology, both physical and intellectual with computers approaching levels of artificial intelligence. Some elites live in fear the people may get tired of merely surviving. A revolution is not impossible, if not by the downtrodden masses, then by the prospective AIs. All this begs the question, just how many threats does it take to terminate human existence? It could be wars or some disease. Or, if we could have our intelligence enhanced, would we stand a better chance of extending our existence? What are the dangers on the way to transhumanity?

David Brin celebrating the contruction of two giant Hello Kitty stations

We start off in upper orbit where Gerald Livingston, a garbage man, picks up the space debris that may someday collide with a spacecraft on a vital mission. Except he lays his “hand” on something rather more interesting than mere rubbish. On Earth and despite the protests of environmentalists, there’s a space launch for what’s politely called orbital hopping (missing the dangerous rubbish, of course) but that goes wrong when Hacker Sander and another go missing — there’s the option of interspecies assistance coming into play, if there was an uplift project, that is. Tor Povlov, investigative reporter, pursues the news wherever it may be found, while Hamish Brookeman lines up to see the Senator with the intention of injecting a little sense into the man (actually a man he later identifies as Roger Betsby performs the injection and he has an ingenious, if somewhat self-righteous motive for this physical invasion). Then the impoverished Chinese shoresteader from Gateways finds a second artifact. That’s two different alien voices for Earth to listen to, except getting them together in the same room would require an unusual spirit of openness and co-operation between the different self-interested groups. All this assumes, of course, there are only two artifacts. What if there was more to the myths about crystal balls capable of prophesy or gemstones showing fantastic scenes from alien worlds? What if there were hundreds, no thousands, of these things waiting to be found? Then there might be an alien tower of Babel with each artifact saying something different. That would be disconcerting. Why might there be different messages? Well, the artifacts could be sent at different times by different civilisations with different agendas. Who knows in what order they might be found or deliver their messages.

Some of Brin’s set pieces are highly effective. The attack on the zeppelin is terrific. More interestingly, the text is littered with wonderful capsule thoughts, like, “Tomorrow welcomes the bold! And next Tuesday greets the gullible!” It’s true that some of it is a little preachy in its tone. After all it’s difficult to discuss where we came from and where we might be going without getting into religious and philosophical debate mode from time to time. Taken overall, Existence is a fascinating story but, for my taste, told at a slightly excessive length. No matter how interesting the many discussion are, they do become slightly repetitive and slow things down. That said, it does come to a rather different ending than the one I expected. There’s a fundamental cleverness about how all the key personalities fit together and are gradually manoevred so they are all in the right place at the right time to get a proper perspective on the past. Even the alien who acquires the name Om manages to find an appropriate role to play in planning for the future. That outcome, in particular, has a rather pleasingly ironic feel.

So here comes the decision for you readers. I’ve been a big fan of David Brin’s writing from his first book and, in scope, the spirit of this plot matches the scale of the earlier work. At times, I found it slightly heavy going but, with the benefit of hindsight, I can say Existence is a genuinely enjoyable experience. My advice for what it’s worth is that, if you want to read some science fiction by a major author with some provocative ideas in play, you should pick this up. If you prefer something more superficial and action-oriented, give this a miss.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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