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Capacity by Tony Ballantyne
Cover Artist: John Blackford
Review by Ernest Lilley
Spectra Mass Market  ISBN/ITEM#: 0553589296
Date: 26 December, 2006 List Price $6.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

Helen is an attractive, spirited woman who finds Kevin, the charismatic guy she's giving a tour of the botanical museum she works fairly irresistible. Pity. What starts out for her as a infatuated frolic in the ferns turns into a virtual nightmare. One which lasts for seventy years of endless variations on torture and dominance games in a VR construct hidden away from the nannyesque security forces of the Environmental Authority, which polices both the atomic (physical) and virtual spaces. When Helen, or at least one implementation of her is rescued by a VR version of one of EA's agents, and finds out what has been done to countless iterations of "her", she decides Kevin should discover that hell, virtual, atomic and existential hath no fury like a woman so abused.

Judy, the EA agent, let's Helen tag along while she chases down this master misogynist to shut down his illicit operation. Actually, "let" her tag along is misleading, because like many human actions in this book, what Helen does is generally predetermined by the actions of savant AI's manipulating her. Even Atomic Judy, the "real" version is putty in the hands of her AI partner Frances.

Meanwhile on the distant planet Gateway (actually, it's 26 years prior, but the storyline keep skipping back and forth) a human therapist tries to get through to AIs that were intended for terraforming the planet...but have all but shut down their brains instead. He was chosen for the mission, they explained, because his wife suffered a brain shutdown that looked very similar, but even he should really wonder why he's chosen to bring his infant son along on what is clearly a very dangerous mission.

What that mission was really about turns out to be the center of this story, and uncovering the truth about Justinian's death, which we're assured of early on, threatens to unravel the fabric of atomic and virtual realities for all of humanity and its progeny. Could the all powerful EA, under the direction of the mythical Watcher, the first AI, actually be hindering humanity rather than fostering its well being? And what idiot takes a baby to a planetary disaster zone?

Kevin turns out to be a complex character who has chosen to stand outside the conventional morality of the controlled worlds of the EA. He's very much like the modernist heroes of the 1930s and 40s in his dismissal of mass maintaining ethics for individual freedoms. For these characters, its not about the greater good, though they no doubt point out that it never was...just that they're more honest with themselves. The same line of thought emerges in the Matrix's Neo, who strives to break the bounds of artificial reality imposed by the machines. Neo manages to ignore that it's already been pointed out to him that the machines had tried a number of other reality constructs before finding one that human minds could accept. So, along with Judy(s) we have to figure out who's right...and what about the god?

I have to confess that the jumps back and forth between the mission to Gateway and Judy(s) pursuit of Kevin confused me at first, until I realized that the first was a series of flashbacks being presented alongside Judy's discovery of resonant facts. So as Justinian is putting the pieces of his puzzle together, so is Judy, only 26 years later.

The author is full of good and novel ideas about reality, consciousness, and the interaction between the two. It turns out that the planet Gateway is infected with sort of a quantum plague, where paying attention to your surroundings has disastrous consequences, which is an interesting spin on the issue. Readers that enjoyed Peter Watts' excellent book Blindsight should find this author's work equally interesting for its insights into the mechanisms of awareness.

We're a bit time lagged here in the US, or we'd have read Recursion, Tony Ballantyne's first novel, when it came out in 2004, and Capacity in 2005, which is a sequel, though it jumps a bit from the original story point. As it is, they arrived on our shores last August (2006), and now as 2007 kicks off. Though I'm pretty sure there is an underlying story arc here waiting for the next book (Divergence) which he's hoping to finish by February, Capacity stands on its own quite well. Feel free to explore the first book but don't stress over coming up to speed here. The characters are confused often enough, but that's their problem.

I'm looking forward to the next novel to find out where this all winds up, and see what further insights are in store for us in the atomic world.

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