Thursday, June 28, 2007

Summer Reading: Recursion

Title: Recursion
Author: Tony Ballantyne
Published: August 29, 2006
Genre: Sci-fi (near-future, kind of)

Novel Recipe: Take one part Tad Williams' Otherland and mix with an equal part of Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. Add two generous scoops of Von Neumann Machines and blend thoroughly. Strain and finish with a spoonful of 1984 by George Orwell and a twist of lemon.

My Thoughts: A less than interesting world saved by a very interesting character, Recursion is light on the science, but plays well with its fiction. Ballantyne's chosen mode of storytelling makes for a slightly convoluted story that takes some musing afterwards to puzzle together. Overall, not spectacular on its own, but intriguing enough to make me pick up Ballantyne's other novels.
Grade: C+

From the Publisher: It is the twenty-third century. Herb, a young entrepreneur, returns to the isolated planet on which he has illegally been trying to build a city–and finds it destroyed by a swarming nightmare of self-replicating machinery. Worse, the all-seeing Environment Agency has been watching him the entire time. His punishment? A nearly hopeless battle in the farthest reaches of the universe against enemy machines twice as fast, and twice as deadly, as his own–in the company of a disarmingly confident AI who may not be exactly what he claims…
Little does Herb know that this war of machines was set in motion nearly two hundred years ago–by mankind itself. For it was then that a not-quite-chance encounter brought a confused young girl and a nearly omnipotent AI together in one fateful moment that may have changed the course of humanity forever.

More Detailed Thoughts:
One should go into Tony Ballantyne's Recursion knowing that it is not one book. Recursion actually contains three seemingly independent plotlines told in alternating chapters. To make it even more confusing, the stories are chronologically offset by 50-100 years. The best way to describe Recursion is to treat these plotlines separately.

First, there is the Herb plot, which takes place in the year 2210. Herb comes from an old money family, and is pampered and privilaged to the point that he decides to illegally grow a city, convinced that his family's wealth and influence will protect him if anything goes wrong. He does this on an unmapped planet, dropping a single Van Neumann Machine (from here on abbreviated to VNM), which is programmed to use the planet's raw materials to construct copies of itself and then use those copies to create a city of shining towers and airy bridges. Herb, predictably, doesn't debug his code, and the VNMs end up devouring the entire planet. The Environmental Agency (which is Greenpeace, the Thought Police, and The Man all rolled up into one package) decides the best way to punish Herb for planetcide is to send him across the universe to fight an invading force of VNMs which are faster, stronger, and smarter than Herb's. His only guide? A snarky robot.

Second, there is the Eva plot, which takes place in 2051. Eva Rye lives in a world overseen by the agency Social Care, which keeps tabs on every human being, attempting to keep every person happy and well adjusted. Despite it all, Eva is depressed (surprising, right?) and manages to stay off the radar of Social Care long enough to attempt suicide by overdosing on painkillers while on a train. She is revived and sent to an institution, where she befriends three other misfits. Eva and her new friends are all diagnosed with severe paranoia, but they of course believe that they're under the survaillence of a sentient AI dubbed "The Watcher." Eva and her friends attempt to escape the institution while simultaneously trying to decide whether their escape is their own idea or whether they are led by The Watcher.

Lastly, there is the Constantine plot, which takes place in 2119. Constantine Storey is a "ghost," a billion dollar corporate spy whose greatest advantage is his complete and utter unremarkability. Not only are computer subroutines dedicated to erasing all traces of Constantine from any database he encounters, but he is also aided by four separate personalities in his mind, dubbed Red, Blue, White, and Grey. Each personality has its own strengths; for example, Red is observational while Blue is artistic. And yes, before you ask, the personalities do talk and argue within Constantine's mind. Constantine is in Australia on a covert operation, but his world is starting to literally fall apart at the seams.

My favorite of the three is the Constantine plot, which is much less predictable than the other two (the Eva plot is by far the most generic), and contained some interesting twists. Constantine is also an extremely interesting character, though this might be my own NaNoWriMo tainted prejudices showing through. We don't know what Constantine's mission is for a long time, or how his storyline fits in with the others, but everything falls into place within the last 100 pages or so.

As characters, Eva and Herb are less likeable, Eva being a generic "misfit chosen for a Greater Purpose" and Herb being a standard "rich boy who Learns a Lesson." The novel plays with some fairly standard themes of humanity (determinism vs free will, good of the few vs that of the many), but it does so in a completely secular realm, which I found interestingly reminiscent of Asimov's Foundation series. Yes, Asimov did it better, but the world glimpsed in Recursion was interesting enough to get me interested in Ballantyne's later novels, so it does its job well. First novels are rarely perfect. I think it says quite a bit about my enjoyment that even as I review the book, I'm trying very hard not to give away the ending(s).

After a single read, there are still a few points in Recursion that have me scratching my head. Fortunately, the author thought to label each chapter with which plotline is being furthered, so I may do a reread in which I read each storyline separately. I'll report back on whether that changes my opinion of the novel if/when it happens.

A technical note: I came into the novel with a rudimentary understanding of what a Von Neumann Machine is, so I found the sometimes vague allusions to them enough to be believable. However, most people might find them a little too much like magic science.

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