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Radio Freefall by Matthew Jarpe
Edited by David G. Hartwell
Review by Ernest Lilley
Tor Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765317841
Date: 07 August 2007 List Price $24.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK

Links: Author Interview / Show Official Info /

Matthew Jarpe's Radio Freefall mixes rock and SF for a high energy debut full of good ideas and a storyline that crosses The Natural with Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and leaves room for more fun to come. It all starts when a grizzled guitarist wanders into Vegas from the desert to put some life into a young band, and ends up in low earth orbit facing down the combined governments of Earth which have been manipulated by a software tycoon into handing control over to him. All that stands in his way is one aging rock and roll god, with a little help from his friends.

The star of Radio Freefall is an aging rocker who calls himself Aqualung, and we're not surprised to find that this is a Jethro Tull reference, though that doesn't happen until much later in the book. The realization of who he really is, or was, creeps up on us as the book progresses, as does the story of where all the missing years went. It's obvious from the start that he's on the comeback trail, but where he could be coming back from has the rock world scratching its head.

The book opens in one of the several varied concert spaces that the author dreams up, this one in a dome shaped undersea habitat with perfect acoustics and bass pumped through the frame. Later we'll rock out in the Scottish equivalent of Woodstock, and finally, living up to the title, though not as firmly as I'd have liked, there will be rock in space...partly, and partly in virtuality.

Aqualung's big contribution to rock isn't simply his charismatic style, savvy song-smithing, and virtuoso playing on his Les Paul. He's got all that, and acts as a fatherly mentor to the members of The Snake Vendors that he takes under his wing to propel to rock stardom. No, his big contribution is "The Machine," a jumbled collection of consoles and computers that beam complex patters of sound into the concert space to manipulate the mood of the crowd. The author has some good ideas here, including the use of facial recognition software for crowd mood analysis. Actually, I think that's freaking brilliant, and wonder if it's already in use in the field. Emotional profiling would have great utility, though I'm sure I'd be pulled out of long lines on a regular basis for glowering.

This sonic sleight of hand is made easier, if not just possible, by the AIs that run through the book. First there's The Colonel an AI that works for the label that signs The Snake Vendors. He's a more or less human level intelligence and a corporate player, though part of the greater AI community and capable of a few dreams of his own. The other two main AIs in the book are both outside the box though. Molly the virtual assistant to technologist Quin Taber, who, by the way is as close to Matthew Jarpe himself as you get in the book, Aqualung having been based on a roommate from college. Molly is an illegal AI, since she's tied to Quin, who raised her from a discarded lab experiment from a fellow researcher and thinks of her a sort of a daughter. For her part, Molly dotes on Quin, hacking elevator controls and Musack® and meeting his every informational need. You may wonder why individuals aren't allowed to "own" AIs, but we eventually get there.

The last AI in the story is something that appears to have more or less booted itself into consciousness from some crude code written decades ago. It's existence is denied by the biggest data security corporation in the world, and in fact it was when Quin came up with proofs of its existence that he found himself suddenly tossed out on his ear. As a result, Quin's got an axe to grind against the computer magnate that runs the firm and is out to take over the world, one byte at a time. Having lost his leg to the White Whale, he's also a bit obsessed with the Digital Carnivore, the rouge AI.

The Digital Carnivore is a Loki-esque AI that permeates the web, making sure that information gets to be free. Taber's got a startup with technology that keeps the Carnivore out and data in. The company he's pitching it to likes it, likes it enough to hire him to not make another one, unless it's for them. They're willing to make him a very rich man and give him a job doing whatever he wants. Even making soup.

But he's got a different job in mind, tracking down the origins of the Digital Carnivore and finding ways to control it. Which is ok by his clients, in fact, it's considerably more than ok by them.

So, Aqualung is trying to put together the rock band he should have been part of when he was young, Quin is trying to track down the Digital Carnivore and discredit Walter Cheeseman, CEO of WebCense, The the two are tied together by connections to the Digital Carnivore, who among other things finds that it's coded to look out for Aqualung from time to time.

Walter really wants to control the world, and he's been manipulating data and global leaders to move them towards a more easily controlled "Unification" of nations. Though a classic dream of Golden Age SF, the idea of World Government here is tarnished by the hand of the digital despot, though in truth his ideas about where humanity shouldn't go (eg the stars) aren't without resonance to readers. There's a protest movement (with prominent rock spokes-folks) in the mix, and three worlds for Cheesman to conquer; Earth, Freefall (the orbital space colony), and Luna. Cheesman doesn't mind if he has to break a few eggs with UN Troops to make his omelet, so there's plenty of action to keep things moving. And in this story, unlike our world, the UN actually weaponizes its troops, or lets Walter do it.

Rock and SF have had been merged in a few books recently. The main character in Gibson's Spook Country is an ex Rock-diva trying to make it as a journalist, and I recently reviewed Keeping It Real: Quantum Gravity: Book 1 by Justina Robson, about an elvish rocker from a parallel universe and its sequel. I'm just not a big fan of magical realities, so half that book lost me a bit, though the writing was excellent. I completely understand that non magical stories can stray from reality just as badly, but I liked the roots in the real that Radio Freefall offered.

To a degree, this is a "get it out of your system" story. Jarpe has been steeped in cyberpunk, Heinlein, and the classics and there's a lot in here which is intentionally referential, as well as a bit that just comes out echoing the classics. If that were all there were, it would be bad, but the author is pretty well bursting with original ideas and has a good feel for what makes characters interesting. There's a lot going on in Radio Freefall, possibly a bit too much in terms of idea and character overload, but it all swirls together to a climactic concert on the space colony broadcasting from Radio Freefall to the world. Having set the stage for the next book, which moves us to the moon, we're looking forward to see if the signal to noise ration creeps up a bit.

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