Surprisingly, it was the analog age that first provided the question
that haunts our virtual, digital future. "Is it real or is
it Memorex?" is the cue for the entire subgenre of virtual reality
fiction, a subgenre that has been around much longer than the current
definition of VR. And the follow-up question is equally old, if not
older. "Does it matter?" These are not themes that are
restricted to science fiction. Indeed, they stem directly from our
attempts to understand our own consciousness, and gave birth to both
religion and philosophy. But these days, science fiction is particularly
well-versed to address the nature of consciousness, perception and
reality. Technology provides an easy way for us to solidify the abstract,
and pulp fiction provides the tropes and settings within which authors
can create a story. But just beneath the trappings of genre lie questions
that have vexed philosophers and saints.
Tony Ballantyne began to grapple with implications of Memorex in 'Recursion',
and he continues his exploration of the nature and importance of reality
in 'Capacity'. 'Capacity' is structured much like 'Recursion' with seemingly
disparate storylines converging in a powerful conclusion. Unlike 'Recursion'
which stood well enough by itself, 'Capacity' is very much a series novel
that requires that one read 'Recursion' first and be ready to read 'Divergence'
shortly thereafter. The original UK trade paperback told us on its final
page that the story began here would be concluded in 'Divergence'; the
US mass-market paperback includes a big chunk of 'Diverge' at the end
without the warning. Either way, it's important for the reader to know
what they're in for with this novel. This is not to say that 'Capacity'
concludes on some sort of cliffhanger, or that it feels incomplete. But
the attentive reader will want prepare their reading schedule accordingly.
'Capacity' begins with an advertising-copy welcome to the digital world
in which readers are assured that there's no difference between their
digital personhood and their "atomic" personhood. We're also
cued to the controversial existence or non-existence of "The Watcher",
a possibly mythical AI that may be running everything. Then we meet Helen,
a young woman enjoying her digital life until she's brutally murdered
in a variety of fashions. Next up, we meet Justinian, a harried explorer
on the planet Gateway. He's accompanied by a reticent robot and his infant
son, and tasked with finding out why any AI dropped onto the planet shuts
itself down. Each story seems to be completely independent, but as readers
of 'Recursion' will be quite aware, Ballantyne will certainly bring them
together in a very satisfying manner.
Scene by scene, Ballantyne's writing is crisp and always clear. The characters
are sharply defined whether they are human, digitized human, or some
form of AI. He establishes conventions and adheres to them. Helen and
Judy, the centerpieces of one storyline, trend more towards archetypes
than flesh-and-blood types. Helen is the voluptuous victim, self-possessed
but vulnerable. She's having a bit of a hard time making the transition
from the atomic world to the worlds of personality constructs. "Atomic" Judy,
on the other hand, is the virgin warrior, or rather a set of virgin warriors,
since she actually communicates with a dozen digital selves, numbered
Judy 4, Judy 11 and so forth. Justinian is a much more approachable and
warm character. Ballantyne's writing effectively puts readers in the
shoes of a rather under-prepared man sent to solve a problem that has
stymied humankind's most powerful AIs. Frustration, annoyance and discomfort
are the orders of the day.
Humans are the only characters in 'Capacity'. Ballantyne does a great
job of creating AIs with seemingly human faces and robots that are clearly
inhuman. What really works in this regard is Kevin, an AI that manifests
itself as a handsome, psychopathic lothario. Ballantyne's subtle prose
effectively shows us a perfectly emulated human with just enough loops
and tics to suggest it is something else entirely. Justinian's annoying
robot Leslie is clearly inhuman, yet just as clearly as complex as a
human. Science fiction readers who enjoy subtle characterizations of
AIs will find a lot to like here.
'Capacity' is filled to capacity with ideas, observations and thought-provoking
problems. There are many moments of pure speculation that would not be
out of place in religious or philosophical texts. There are also plenty
of scientific innovations that lend credence to some written special
effects. Ballantyne's unaffected prose and sharply-delineated scenes
bring some rather incredible visions to life, always with just a bit
of a smirk.
Ballantyne's plotting style is based around out-of-order storytelling;
events in Justinian's story precede and influence those in Helen and
Judy's. The reader is constantly forced to put together a puzzle-picture
of what is happening, which for some readers may seem more like a chore
than a charm. This style of plotting is simply a recursive reflection
of the themes, but the machinery can seem too apparent. We are not machines–yet.
I want to mention that the UK trade paperback originals, which can still
be found, are worth finding, if you like beautifully printed, easy-to-read
books. The US mass-market paperbacks do have a nice set of covers, but
they suffer by comparison to the UK TPBs. The latter though, will set
you back a good $20 or so by the time you get 'em shipped here. And the
covers of the UK books are quite nice as well.
If anything, there is almost too much stuffed into 'Capacity'; Ballantyne
riffs relentlessly to create a menace nearly as sinister as the AIs that
oversee mankind. The plots fold back in on themselves and remind the
reader that the first novel was indeed called 'Recursion' for a reason.
For a book that ends on a "To be continued" note, 'Capacity'
is a satisfying single-serving, chock full of the stuff of science fiction,
philosophy and religion. Dark matter or space ladders, real or Memorex,
prisoners of programming or free will incarnate, you name it, Ballantyne
uses his concise and clear prose to make it real. Unless, of course,