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Tony Ballantyne
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2007

Tor UK / Pan Macmillan
UK Trade Paperback Original
ISBN 1-405-04140-4
330 Pages; £10.99
Publication Date: 11-18-2005
Date Reviewed: 06-10-2007

Index: Science Fiction

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, it's virtual.

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