Since I like idea-dense books I like reading sf authorís first books: if the storytelling is a bit rough about the edges it doesnít matter since they are usually crammed with the ideas. Recursion by Tony Ballantyne involves plenty of things I like to think of myself: self-replicating machinery, the epistemology of conspiracy, strong AI and the global dynamics of interstellar civilizations. Set in different eras (2210, 2051 and 2119) the main characters are Herb the would-be illicit terraformer, Eve the paranoid fast food waitress and Constantine the corporate meeting-goer. Together their stories sketch out a future filled with paranoia and onion-layered plans.
The characters are all charmingly flawed: Herb is a spoiled heir, desiring to get one of the few things he canít buy with money, being allowed to terraform an entire planet into his own design. When he sneaks away to do it in secret far away in space he botches the job and turns the planet into a pile of teeming, hungry but useless replicating machinery. Before he can creep away an odd representative from the authorities appear and blackmails/drafts him into fighting another replicator menace. Herb becomes the whining and underinformed assistant to the representative, making the reader wonder at every turn why he is brought along.
Eve lives a dreary life in a world surrounded by a networked conspiracy. She just want to be alone or dead, but the Powers That Be constantly monitors everyone and persuades them to do slight jobs to keep the system running smoothly Ė including keeping Eve from harm. Even planning a simple suicide requires a sharp mind. The ubiquitous surveillance conspiracy is one of the freshest parts of the book: it is a not too unbelievable mixture of David Brinís Transparent Society, the nanny state and the Illuminati that makes sense. With enough data, people always accessible (and manipulable) through phones and wireless and a society valuing short-term rewards and control, it might work to some extent.
Constantine lives his life in anonymous hotels, moving quietly and largely unseen on errands for the DIANA corporation. This is the world of hotel room ennui, jet lag and endless meetings. He is deeply involved in some utterly secret endeavour, but circumspect even in thinking about it. His only company are the four autonomous personalities running in parallel in his mind (not too unlike the daimons in Walter John Williamís Aristoi). Maybe he has loaded a bit too much into his mind or spent too much time in artfully designed environments since his sense of reality is slipping away. And of course, it is by no means certain he can trust his personalities.
A general theme is the creeping paranoia of being surrounded by a world where powerful minds can analyse and predict oneís every move. How do you escape this control? Another theme is agendas within agendas: a natural response is to do things in secret while pretending to do something else. But there is never any end to it since the sinister forces watching could always be a bit smarter, and then one needs yet another layer of misdirection. Isnít it just easier to give up and start trusting the Powers That Be?
Ballantyne manages to wrap up the many apparently disparate threads into a satisfying conclusion. As one of the characters remarks, ďThe answer is too niceĒ Ė the big universal secret is a bit pat. But as the little epilogue shows, even if everything is as fine as it seems, that doesnít mean it is entirely nice. And there is still no way to ensure that it isnít all a plot.
This blog has a current hiatus due to my holiday in the Arctic. I'm slowly making my way back south from 80 degrees north at Svalbard. In about a week I plan to return with some of my pictures and observations. In the meanwhile you will have to make do with a photo of "The Seven Sisters" of the Geirangen fjord in Norway.