THREE PEOPLE. THREE TIME-LINES. ONE MYSTERY.
(A.I. Trilogy, Book 1)
Genre: Science Fiction
Format: Paperback, 352 Pages
Date: 17th June 2005 (First Published 2004)
There have been numerous science fiction stories in different mediums that have explored the idea of artificial intelligence, and the potential threat it may pose to humanity if it were ever to attain sentience/self awareness. That being the case, there is little in the central premise of Tony Ballantyne’s début novel, Recursion, that hasn’t been done before by other writers. It should come as no surprise then that the book adheres to the general consensus that artificial intelligence is bad news. Nevertheless, the one aspect of the novel that sets it apart from other tales that have tackled the subject is the structure of its narrative.
The author shuns the more traditional linear approach to story progression, choosing instead to tell the story via three distinct time-lines, following three different characters. Initially, and for much of the book, it appears as though the three plots are unconnected; at least it isn’t immediately obvious how, or even if, they could be connected to each other. Slowly, however, as the three stories progress it does become apparent that not only are they connected, but the three protagonists are inextricably linked, and the tie that binds them is the mystery lying at the heart of the book: the origins of an artificial intelligence that surreptitiously emerged at the start of the 21st century, to become an existential threat to all life in the galaxy in the 23rd century.
Recursion begins in the year 2210 introducing the first of the book’s protagonists, Henry Jeremiah Kirkham, who is more commonly referred to as Herb. For reasons that aren’t really elaborated, Herb is alone on a spaceship in orbit around an uninhabited planet to observe the failed results of his handiwork. He has released a Van Neumann Machine (a self-replicating nano-technology) which is used to rapidly terraform entire worlds and create the necessary infrastructure to make those planets habitable for humans. An unexpected glitch has resulted in an incomplete transformation of the planet, leaving it swarming with spider-like VNM’s that would normally deactivate themselves upon the completion of their task. But before Herb can ascertain what has gone wrong a mysterious stranger materialises out of thin air aboard the ship. The individual identifies himself as Robert Johnston, claiming to be from the Environmental Agency. Herb assumes that his unauthorised attempt to terraform a planet has got him into trouble; instead, Robert Johnston warns him of an imminent threat to Earth and has come to enlist Herb’s help to neutralise that threat before it’s too late.
Ballantyne regularly breaks up Herb’s story by interjecting two other narratives. The first of these storylines takes place on 21st century Earth in the year 2051. It recounts the story of Eva Rye, a seemingly disturbed and paranoid young woman who hears a voice in her head; a voice warning her of an all-pervasive, big brother type presence that is watching everyone and everything. Eva’s growing depression is fuelled by the fact that she cannot escape the notice of “the Watcher”. Even a suicide attempt is thwarted by this mysterious entity, and results in Eva being committed to a mental institution. But while inside, Eva encounters three other patients who are also aware of the existence of the Watcher. Together they devise a plan to escape, not only the institution, but also the omnipresent gaze of the Watcher. A course of action that inadvertently sets them on the path to finding the Watcher.
The second time-line unfolds in the 22nd century in the year 2119, following the exploits of Constantine Storey, an employee of a major tech company who, like Eva, hears voices in his head—four of them, in fact. Unlike Eva the voices in Constantine’s head have been deliberately implanted. The first three voices are essentially the 22nd century equivalent of the digital personal assistants that today’s smartphones are equipped with. But unbeknown to Constantine, the mysterious fourth voice that rarely speaks has an entirely different function. Its task is to ensure that Constantine doesn’t, under any circumstances, reveal the secret that he is concealing. This particular plot is initially the most intriguing of the three before things became just a little too weird, like being trapped inside The Matrix. In any event, this storyline serves the purpose of revealing a discovery Constantine made on Mars that holds the key to the successful resolution of the crisis that Herb will be faced with a century later.
Even though it eventually transpires that the events of the three time-lines are linked, it’s hard to shake the feeling that at some stage they were three separate attempts at stories that, individually, didn’t warrant full-length novels. At which point the author decided to cobble the three together into a single narrative. Of course, it’s entirely feasible that this was not the case, but there will surely be other readers who will read Recursion, and reach the same conclusion.
While the plot has plenty of unfulfilled potential, the same can be said for the characters. Flawed characters are often the most interesting and enjoyable to read, provided those flaws don’t make them unlikeable in the process. That’s not to suggest it is essential for protagonists to be likeable. But when a story isn’t particularly engaging, having compelling characters in the mix can help to compensate for that. In this case it is hard to warm up to any of the main characters, especially Herb, who makes for an unlikely hero. He is such a snivelling weasel of a man whose ego is only surpassed by his cowardice, which makes it incredibly difficult to root for him.
But the principal problem with the book is that from the very outset it is simply too far-fetched. Sure, there is no rule stipulating that an exploration of the potential threat posed by artificial intelligence should be tackled in a serious, realistic manner. However, there is an argument to be made that for such a story to be truly effective, an approach grounded in realism would be desirable. While it may no doubt seem churlish to complain about a science fiction novel being unrealistic, this is ultimately the reason why Recursion goes off the rails. The plot is just too absurd to be plausible, to the extent that one can say with absolute certainty that in the highly unlikely event that a truly sentient AI were to be created it would not become an existential threat to humanity in the manner depicted in this novel.
It’s a shame Recursion proves to be such a disappointing take on the theme of artificial intelligence developing into a threat to humanity. The book does actually contain several interesting ideas, and poses a very potent question, worthy of much thought: If an artificial intelligence came to the conclusion that it was most capable of managing all human affairs, and had the means to accomplish that goal, would it be in humanity’s interest to permit this, or should we remain masters of our own destiny? Fortunately, it is a question we will never have to answer as artificial intelligence is a pipe dream.