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Fools' Experiments by Edward M. Lerner
Review by Ernest Lilley
Tor Books Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765319012
Date: 11 November 2008 List Price $25.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

As the line between man an machine blurs, and computers become a part of us as well as a part of our lives, we take on their weaknesses and vulnerabilities as well as their strengths. When computer viruses start infesting VR researchers, causing them to lose their minds, the real question is who, or what has found them...and what does it want to do with them? Only a few scientists understand that the pervasive but seemingly harmless viral attacks on the web may be anything but, and VR researcher Doug Carey knows that there's no time for a peer review of his theories to stop what's coming.

While innocuous computer viruses attack everyone's system spreading harmless messages about the danger of nuclear power, a computer scientist turns terrorist and attacks a nuclear power plant. Another dies of a heart attack, and still another just loses her mind and any sense of who she is. Computer Scientist Doug Carey knows about loss. He'd give his right arm to have his wife, Holly, back, except that the same accident that killed her ripped it from his body. Now he's doing research (and playing a lot of VR Racquetball) to teach a bio mechanical arm to act like the real thing. What he doesn't know is that his neural connections put him at special risk to whatever lurks on the web.

AJ Rosenberg is a computer scientist too, but one into AI, rather than VR. What Doug and AJ have in common is that they're both using self-learning systems to approach their individual problems. First you construct a program that can modify itself, then you give it mutation and challenges to survival. Then you run the clock of evolution at billions of times geological time and see what you've hatched.

Doug's work, using this approach to make better software for biomechanicals, is pretty benign. AJ thinks his work is benign, or at least under control, but he doesn't account for human error, ultimately his own, in letting someone into his isolated lab that doesn't understand the importance of isolating a developing intelligence from the outside world. Because on one side of the AI lab's firewalls is the product of generations of painfully forced evolution, while on the outside is a world full of malicious code, practically limitless processing power and storage space, and a whole world to discover.

Fools' Experiments follows several plot lines towards their rendezvous with "the entity" as AJ's AI is refered to throughout the book. Doug is director of a neural computing lab and slowly recovering from the loss of his wife. Recovering a bit faster with the addition of an attractive scientist named Cheryl to the staff, though Doug wouldn't dream of crossing the line between personal and professional. Well, he might dream of it, but he's got pretty strong ethics. Cheryl's not immune to the attraction nor blind to the conflicts, so there's some nice tension as their story develops. When they realize that they both fit the profile for whatever is destroying the minds of scientists in their field around the world, the tension cranks up as they share danger and attempt to unravel the mystery.

AJ's story gets some romantic spice in the form of a journalist who's out to cover his breakthroughs in evolutionary computing. Doug's storyline is more deftly handled than AJ's but I suppose we can chalk that up to differences in the actors, rather than the playwright. AJ spends a lot of time and energy on what he wants (id), while Doug spends it on what he should do (ego), as they both move slowly towards what they need to do to be whole (superego). The two women in the story are interesting in that they exist only in so far as they relate to their guy's crises. Not that either is especially shallow, one being a top journalist and the other being a top scientist as well as a single mother, but neither seems to need to do much personal growth in order to figure out what the right thing to do is, who they should fall in love with, what the meaning of life is. Maybe existential conflict is a male domain, but I'm not sure. Interestingly, there's another character in the story, the entity, who doesn't suffer from questions about the meaning of life. That's the nice thing about being hardwired for survival and having everyone out to kill you. It really simplifies life. Even for Doug and AJ.

In a lot of ways, Fools' Experiment is a classic monster movie. You've got a number of vectors converging; a monster on a slab in the lab, a mad(ish) doctor trying to bring it to life, and the spark of lightning (computer viruses) that turn it into more than he bargained for. There's the pure of heart researcher (Doug) teamed up with the beautiful sidekick (Cheryl) to join forces with the military and stop the monster before it destroys the (cyber)world. The military in this case is the Inter-Agency Computer Network Security Forum and in an interesting twist on plot, it's not the military type running the place that's hard to convince of the danger, it's the agencies geeks who think they have the inside line on what danger lurks on the web...or at least what's cool to grapple with. In classic fashion they're about to discover that their favorite weapons are toys compared to this monster from (cyber)space.

All of which is to say that Fools' Experiment isn't especially groundbreaking in terms of story, or in fact in terms of science fiction. It is, rather, much closer to techno-fiction, the slight extrapolation of what currently exists in science and technology to what might happen if it got into the "wrong" hands. The AI bits are equally shopworn speculation and unlikely developments, but they've become an expected part of web-evolution, and besides, it serves to put a "human" face on the enemy.

In the final analysis, the story is engaging, but more from our interest in the characters than in the resolution of any conflicts with cyberdemons.

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