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Divergence by Tony Ballantyne
Review by Karen Burnham
Spectra Mass Market  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780553589306
Date: 01 May 2007 List Price $6.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

The ragtag crew of the Eva Rye has recently started traveling the galaxy, looking to engage in trading using a system called Fair Exchange. They're learning the ropes as they go, and they soon find themselves in the midst of events that they don't fully understand, while the fate of the Earth may hang in the balance.

The Earth has been completely controlled by an AI known as The Watcher, an entity that uses drugs and manipulation to create a utopia, where everything works perfectly and everyone is good to each other. However, it has recently come under attack by Dark Seeds, quantum entities that will take root and destroy observing intelligences. These Dark Seeds may have been sent by Chris, a competing AI that controls other regions of human-occupied space.

The crew of the Eva Rye are a disparate group. Most of them signed up to the Fair Exchange system from a planet in the Enemy Territory (controlled by Chris), although Edward (a mentally slow adult) bought passage from a planet that was coming under threat from the Dark Seeds. Since then they have executed numerous trades, but not understanding exactly how Fair Exchange works (the computer software that mediates the trades is a black box to them), they often feel cheated. When a ship that belongs to the supposedly defunct DIANA faction (capitalists who used to oppose the Watcher) buy passage to Earth on the Eva Rye for a woman named Judy, events speed up. While they continue to execute trades on their way to Earth, it seems as if some force is manipulating the process, doing everything possible to ensure that Judy gets to Earth, now one of the most dangerous places in the galaxy thanks to the Dark Seed infestation all through the Solar System.

This is primarily a novel of Big Ideas, although its plot moves forward quickly. One of its main concerns is how much free will humans have when they're part of a system, whether that system is physical, social or economic. Ballantyne specifically links Fair Exchange with Christianity, so as the characters learn more about the system they've adopted, questions about the relationships between individuals, society, religion and economics arise. Also, in the wide range of differences between the different characters, some with mental or physical handicaps, emotional handicaps, some privileged or particularly talented, Ballantyne highlights the diversity of human experience, and looks at the core of what all humans have in common and will still have in common in the future.

This is the finale of a linked trilogy of books that started with Recursion (2005) and Capacity (2006). They share an over-arching plot and several characters, including Judy. However, Divergence functions perfectly well as a stand alone novel, although one may miss some of the character nuances. By introducing the new and hapless crew, Ballantyne gives us sympathetic eyes with which to learn about his universe and its confusions. If one has been reading the whole series, this should bring a satisfying conclusion with some unforeseen twists.

Recommended for fans of philosophically oriented science fiction.

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