- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 7, 2004

Human consciousness can’t be saved and stored electronically like a Microsoft product — yet. But Ken MacLeod envisions just such a time in his latest novel, Newton’s Wake (Tor, $24.95, 322 pages). Billed as a “space opera,” the new book is more of a space opus — a weighty work on the coming nexus of man and machine.

The story unfolds in the 24th century, 300 years after “the Hard Rapture,” when machines powered by artificial intelligence (A.I.) turned on their human creators in a nuclear war for control of Earth. The machines were victorious. The winners scanned the brains of the human dead and stored the contents electronically for possible reconstitution in the future. The losers fled to distant reaches of space and settled where conditions allowed.

Protagonist Lucinda Carlyle is a “combat archeologist,” descended from an old Scottish clan of space-faring entrepreneurs. Imagine a female Indiana Jones in a spacesuit. Her people have not just survived their exodus from Earth, but have prospered by taking control of “the Skein,” a network of interplanetary wormholes providing access to distant points of the galaxy. With her band of treasure hunters, Lucinda scavenges the wormhole terminuses for fun and profit.

But Lucinda encounters trouble on a distant world called Eurydice. Intent on looting a vast array of diamond monoliths, her group inadvertently awakens mechanical sentinels, installed eons ago by a long-dead civilization to guard the precious structures.

A shoot-out ensues between the Carlyle clan and the sentinels, drawing the attention of heavily-armed locals. Lucinda and her band find themselves face to face with other humans, fellow refugees of Earth’s long-ago A.I. war. Their reunion is less than amicable, however: The long-slumbering war machines now pose a threat to all.

The Eurydicean humans — themselves reconstituted from stored personality programs — are less than thrilled to learn that Lucinda has been utilizing an electronic version of a deceased Israeli scientist, Isaac Schlaim, to power the intelligent functions of her spacesuit. Indeed, the electronic professor proves to be an untrustworthy assistant when he powers up her suit and walks it to sanctuary with the Eurydiceans — without her in it.

It isn’t long before other Hard Rapture survivors begin to mill about the skies above Eurydice in their faster-than-light-speed starships: samurai-like Japanese, descendants of Chinese Communists and farmers from America Offline, all eager for a piece of the economic pie.

To repel their long-lost and unwelcome relatives, the Eurydiceans bolster their defenses by reconstituting stored humans with military experience. Among them are many “Returners,” who long to go home to Earth, liberate the ancestral planet from the machines and reconstitute all the humans still held in electronic bondage.

True to form, Lucinda is on-board with that plan. Where there’s an adventure to be had — not to mention a little gold — count her in.

Mr. MacLeod isn’t the first science fiction writer to explore the characteristics of consciousness and notice that the boundaries delineating human and artificial intelligence are narrowing. Nor is he the first to write about the concept of space travel facilitated by portals leading to distant regions of space. Still, he has succeeded in fashioning second-hand ideas into a first-rate tale.

By entitling his story “Newton’s Wake,” does the author intend to evoke the long-deceased mathematician? And is it a party or pathway? Prepare to ponder.

• • •

Profiles in power — seen and unseen — define the struggle between two vastly different worlds grappling for advantage in Jim Grimsley’s The Ordinary (Tor, $24.95, 400 pages).

Senal, an Earth colony of some 30 billion inhabitants, is renowned for its technological sophistication. Irion, in contrast, is sparsely populated and not really a planet at all. Rather, it is composed of a flat plane surrounded by mountains and beyond them, a void. Its meager population worships the magical arts.

In their contest for dominance, Irion appears to be no match for Senal. But the existence of a mysterious inter-dimensional portal between the two worlds, the Twil Gate, makes a contest inevitable.

Jedda Martele is a Senalese trader who uses the Gate to conduct business on Irion. Limited technology arrives on Irion from Senal, which receives agricultural products in return. Jedda is asked to assist a diplomatic delegation to Irion. Little does she know that her imperialistic compatriots on Senal have more than trade in mind — they intend to take this backward world by force.

But little do these devious invaders realize that Irion is not what it appears. Named after a supernatural figure of the past, Irion is imbued with an unseen power of immense proportions. The realm is ruled by Queen Malin, in whom that power now resides.

When Senal’s war fleet traverses the portal and arrives on Irion, Malin annihilates it single-handedly. She expels all visitors and shuts the Twil Gate to further transit. Only Jedda is allowed to remain. Over time, she realizes she has been chosen to absorb the culture of this mysterious place.

At first, she believes Irion’s power to be magical. But as time goes by, she begins to suspect that the forces at work on Irion originate in a clearer grasp of scientific principles. Experience reveals that she must be willing to trade her original view of reality for another.

The subtext of Mr. Grimsley’s new book is a message about the evolution of knowledge. He intimates that it is human nature for the mysterious initially to be attributed to supernatural causes. But in the fullness of time, phenomena previously thought to be magical are understood in scientific terms. And as the author demonstrates in imaginative detail, the extraordinary then becomes “The Ordinary.”

Frank Perley is articles editor for the Commentary section of The Washington Times.


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