Saturday, December 5, 2015

On by Jon Puckridge

Rating: WORTHY!

This felt like reading a William Gibson Novel, which in some ways was wonderful, because it was like Gibson used to be, before he lost his direction, but in other ways it was a bad thing because once you start down the road to inventing a new cool world, there's a danger you'll go too far and ruin it by rendering it in such obscure hues that it's unintelligible to the human eye. Fortunately, while parts of this world were obtuse, this author didn’t overdo it, and the story - once I settled into it - was engrossing. It’s Gibson by way of I, Robot and A.I., with a tang of Blade Runner for seasoning, and an ominous dash of 1984 that tingles like Takifugu on the tongue. While bits of it here and there felt like info-dumps and were somewhat irritating, for the most part it read well and drew me in, and it kept me engaged right to the end.

The initial premise is that this world is an extension of our own, many years into the future, where there are sentient and emancipated robots, although it was unclear, until about 30% into the novel, whether these actually were robots, clones, advanced humans, cyborgs, or even an alien race! Perhaps that was intentional. In a way, humans are becoming more like the bots, in that technology is being used to augment people, specifically in this case, by way of connecting them mind to mind, in the same way that the Internet currently connects people device to device. I can see this happening; not in the near future, but in fifty years or a century, this is going to happen. Will it ever start drifting towards being mandatory as it does here? Will corporations be all powerful as they are here? It depends upon what foundation you place 'mandatory' - and corporations are already becoming all-powerful!

In the novel, Earth's population is some 23 billion, housed on a host of satellites as well as on the dirty and polluted planet's surface. Everything - quite literally everything - is privatized. It's known as OneWorld, perhaps because everyone who can afford it is linked via the grID system and there are no national boundaries - only corporate ones. The grID system involves communicating through headsets using visors, and is evidently rooted in something like Google Glass. Goggle Glass! The next wave of this technology is already unveiling in the novel, and it's called "ON" - where everyone is on all the time, facilitated by means of an implanted brain device, plugged into the back of the skull in a manner reminiscent of the device in The Matrix movies. Yes, there are some elements from that story in here, too.

The problem here is that while this technology is awesome and supposedly hack-proof, evidence begins accumulating that it clearly isn't anything like hack-proof. The mystery is: who is hacking it and what’s their game plan? Or is there entirely something else going on here? Investigating an oddball murder, a rooin cop starts uncovering more mysteries than he's solving. Rooin is the polite name given to robots. Females are rooines, although why robots would put up with that is a mystery.

What does it even mean to be a female robot when robots don’t reproduce like humans do? As is usual with sci-fi, parts of it made no sense, not even in context! Even if, as in the movie A.I. there were some robots which were manufactured to give pleasure to humans, it makes little sense that that particular distinction would be continued once the robots were emancipated. I didn’t get the impression that these particular robots wanted to emulate humans very much. Issues like this are rather glossed over, as they typically are in sci-fi, so you either have to decide to let it go, and relax and enjoy the story, or quit reading it and move on to something else. I continued reading!

There were some minor issues with the text, such as my pet peeve: "My name is Doctor Rafaela Serif." No, her name is Rafaela Serif . 'Doctor' is her title. It’s not her name. I see this a lot in novels, and sadly, there's nothing to be done about it! Those minor issues aside, the writing was good. A bit obscure in places, occasionally confusing in others, but overall very well done, if we ignore common faux pas such as "I found it hard to place Dos’ origins," which actually should have read " I found it hard to place Dos’s origins," since Dos here is a name and not a plural. Those kinds of thing might irritate but they're not deal-breakers for me.

Rest assured that there are some brilliant bits, too. The 1984 part came in with Tempo corporation, the owners of time - not the magazine, but the passage of time! You have to pay to get the time of day in this world, so most people don't bother. Who has the time?! No one! It’s actually a waste of time since each person's personal assistant - the grID - tells them everything they need to know regarding appointments, and so on.

No one pays any attention to time anymore, which makes it hard for the rooin who's investigating the murder to actually determine when something happened that's pertinent to his investigation. People have to refer to one event in terms of other events - such as a sports game, or some scandal with one of the corporations. It even makes it difficult to know your own age or the age of your kids. Another such charmer was that insurance rules in this world. You can even get insured against committing crime. One guy missed a payment on his identity insurance and now his identity is owned by some Chinese corporation! I Loved that.

Be warned that this is yet another novel that acknowledges the acute limitations of first person PoV by switching person frequently depending on whose story we’re following. Normally I rail against this, but in this case it was hardly noticeable - I think because the novel was so weird anyway, set in a rather alien future, that things like a shifting voice didn’t really register against all the other background noise, so it wasn't an issue, which was refreshing! The mixed views and voices made more sense at the end than they did sat the beginning.

Though this is written by an Australian author, it's hard to tell precisely because (it seems to me) it's sci-fi and as such, features many advanced concepts and buzzwords. This is the upside of the very thing which was a bit annoying to me at other times! Only a word or two here and there (a spelling of colour, as opposed to color, for example) gives it away, so for picky American audiences, too many of whom don't seem to be willing to stretch themselves outside national boundaries, there should be few problems with intelligibility or slang here. British readers will feel right at home.

Overall I rate this a very worthy read. It was interesting and engrossing, and kept me following it right to the end. I recommend it.