This apparently innocuous book comes with something of a health warning – it’s not a light read and if you’re trying to read with one eye on the computer/TV/games console, then this isn’t the book to attempt such multi-task tricks.
Society in the 23rd century runs smoothly and peacefully with the aid of Social Care operatives such as Judy 3. Meanwhile benevolent AIs, under the control of the near-mythical Watcher, seem to have solved all humankind’s problems, and with their aid humans have begun to explore the surrounding universe. But why does every AI that visits the planet Gateway commit suicide within just hours arriving there? Justinian Sibelius has now arrived on the planet to try and find a reason. Yet how can someone with merely human intelligence solve a puzzle that has defeated minds far great than his own – even that of the Watcher himself?
And what if the Watcher should turn out not to be as benevolent as people once believed?
This book bites into some really chewy subjects – the issue of VR versus the ‘atomic’ world, for instance. If a VR construct of a person is imprisoned and repeatedly raped and tortured, does that constitute a crime? Judy 3 of Social Care would argue – yes it does. However, the construct Kevin, who feels no conscience whatsoever, would claim that because he can easily clone yet another construct, then each one is worthless. What does this do to the issue of permanence and immortality? Who decides how humankind will age in this stable environment? And how does the right of the individual stack up against the needs of the many?
Ballantyne also examines the nature of intelligence, both human and non-human. As the complicated plot skips its non-linear path back and forth, he throws out a welter of information about this intriguing society where humankind is now in the hands of robotkind, who make the major decisions for them. But what then happens when for some reason, these apparently invincible AI’s with their ability to manipulate human emotion and behaviour, start malfunctioning? Who will be able to cope?
It is certainly an intriguing, thought provoking book that I’m very glad I picked up and read. But… I do think that Ballantyne has packed at least a couple of book-sized plots in this complex story and while I think he’s covered the concepts very well, I felt that I wanted to know more about all of his characters – with the exception of Judy, who I think is a triumph, given just how Other she is. However, Helen, Kevin and even Justinian could have done with a bit more character complexity and depth for me. It doesn’t help that while most of the time, Ballantyne’s prose is accomplished and effortlessly stylish, there were times when the dialogue became a bit clunky as the characters attempted to explain/expound their views regarding these weighty subjects.
That said, this book honourably fulfils one of the major briefs of science fiction – to look at major philosophical and moral issues that will probably affect our future and unpack them in a fictional backdrop. And for anyone who is at all interested in the possible future of our race against an increasing trend to resort to automate more and more aspects of our lives – this is a must-read.