Thursday, December 20, 2007

Megavirus to the rescue

kw: book reviews, science fiction, space fiction

New writer, new ideas. Anachronisms abound in Radio Freefall by Matthew Jarpe, but it isn't too serious. The title is intended to remind of "Radio Free Europe", for the theme enters that territory.

In the early 2030s, the world is rapidly being swallowed up by Unification. As usual, the mass of humanity is either too sheeplike or too busy surviving to pay much attention. The scenario is plausible. Also, music trends have done what trends do: morphed almost out of recognition. The mix of "classic" rock/hiphop/rap/CMA country (today's trends) is giving way to more techno versions of all of the above, and that is important to the story line.

Mr. Jarpe sure knows his music, and he's a fair hand with a lyric: every chapter has a head quote from a song dated 2008-2032. They're an eclectic sample of the kinds of semi-absurdist post-post-modern rage/protest rock that is quite likely to be popular among our grandkids...except that the turn(s) music will really take over the next 25 years is 'way too unpredictable.

The prevalence of AI running at a human and post-human level is much less likely. Moore's Law has been showing signs of wear for 10-15 years, and the curvature of the "linear" trend is quite noticeable now. That simply means that the predictions of the AI gurus have to be taken with an even larger pinch of salt than before. Whenever you read predictions of what new advance will occur when, simply add a zero: ten years means a hundred, and so forth. So that part of the narrative took some getting used to. I guess I know too much about the field, from the inside.

The idea of a pervasive Net virus evolving into the Digital Carnivore is enticing. However, evolution requires a population that can mix, reproduce and be frequently decimated by selective forces. The focus in the book on one big virus masks this, though a knowledge of the way the net works makes it seem more likely to me. Any one piece of viral code is endlessly replicated, and if it has been programmed to be self-editing, and able to mix-and-match among various copies of itself, who knows...?

The three main characters in the book—Aqualung, an aging rocker and electronics wizard; Walter Cheeseman, a political and business genius who is quite credibly taking over the world; and Quin Taber (with his AI assistant Molly), one of a small number of people who can handle the info overload of a "dataspray" implant, and a former Cheeseman employee who now wants to thwart him—are all larger than life, more so than I expected.

The book is compared in the trade press with Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and I can see the similarity. But Jarpe makes it more personal (in Moon the digital protagonist overshadows everyone else), and his craft is already good enough to make this quite unlikely plot seem possible. I'd watch this guy as his writing matures.

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