Thursday, January 24, 2008

JD's Take: Recursion (Tony Ballantyne)

Recursion is, like so many books, told from several points of view. The first of them is Herb, your average spoiled rich kid from the future, who thinks he's clever enough to slip by the Environmental Authority (the nanny-state AI overseer of humanity) and use Von Neumann Machines to terraform his very own planet (he screws up and his machines eat the whole plante 2 pages in). The second is Constantine. His story takes place 91 years before Herb's. He is a corporate "Ghost", a kind of blank spot in the grid. His job is to Make Shit Happen without being noticed by humanity as a whole or the burgeoning AI Overseer. Finally, we have Eva. He story takes place a wee bit before Constantine's, and she just wants to commit suicide. Unfortunately, her government (not AI controlled) won't let her.

How do these disparate stories fit together? For the most part, they don't. At all. They could have been told sequentially without any real difference in the storytelling. Information was not revealed in storyline A that influenced the reader's understanding of storyline B at any point. That was annoying. On the other hand, each of the stories, taken on it's own, would be a reasonably entertaining short story. These short stories would be of the "character light, science heavy" variety, but they'd be OK. They even share a world and thematic tone, so I could understand publishing them in a single collection, but I'm not entirely sure why he thought they needed to be shuffled into a novel. It detracted from all of them.

The stories themselves are, as I said, interesting at least. They are each an exploration of likely future technology, focusing on VNMs (self replicating robots) Digital Consciousness (of the "I stick my brain in a 'puter" variety), and Artificial Intelligence. These explanations are all tinged with an anti-trans-humanism vibe. Or possibly a pro trans-humanism vibe that's so optimistic that it's creepy. Like a Stepford Transhumanist. I'm going to go with Anti. That theme reads as very paranoid, even alarmist, which hurts his scientific cred in my opinion.

Once you move past the science, however, the story part starts to break down. Some of the story threads intentionally do not resolve, which is fine. Some of them don't resolve, and it's absurd. It's like he ran out of pages in which to tell us what happens next in one of the story lines. In one glaring instance, a character says something along the lines of "I'm never gonna give up" and then disappears from the pages of the book forever. If I try really really hard I can work her into later stories, but only by saying things like "well she *could* have started X or been doing Y", but that's bullshit.

So. Viewed as a collection of hard Sci Fi short stories, it's alright. Viewed as a coherent novel, or from a character or story-driven point of view, it falls short of what I'd call "reasonable expectations". It's an OK read at best, unless you happen to be very into VNMs and their impact on society, or you like a good paranoia laced romp into the future.

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