BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A rogue AI looking for godhood makes himself known to humanity.
PROS: Well-conceived universe; intricately plotted and clearly explained; several story elements play well off each other; cool, large-scale ideas.
CONS: It’s (an admittedly small) leap of faith to believe that the three heretical technologies — artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, and nanotech – are thought to be suppressible.
BOTTOM LINE: Reading this is like eating candy.
S. Andrew Swann’s carefully plotted Apotheosis trilogy (which documents a rogue AI’s rise to godhood) takes place hundreds of years in the future, after the collapse of the human Confederacy. The Roman Catholic Church and the Eridani Caliphate are jostling for power and the events around the star Xi Virginis may tip the balance one way or the other. That’s why the Vatican sent Priest and ex-military man Father Francis Mallory on an undercover reconnaissance mission. Mallory posed as a mercenary who was hired by an artificial intelligence named Tjaele Mosasa. That mission (documented in Prophets) led the team to discover the presence of a rogue AI named Adam. Like Mosasa, Adam was created by mankind’s enemy: the since-defeated aliens known as The Race. But unlike Mosasa, who (kind of) serves the role of a Daneel R. Olivaw-like character watching how humanity moves about the universe, Adam takes his creators’ defeat to heart. His desire is nothing short of assimilating all of mankind. In Heretics, Adam makes himself known and launches his first attack on humanity – a tactic that involves some creative use of black holes and lots of destruction.
Sound ambitious? Swann makes it seem easy, delivering the same unique brand of space opera that he delivered in Prophets. It combines equal parts intrigue, mystery, adventure, religion, and world building – beautifully blended together into a hugely satisfying experience. What’s fascinating is how well these elements drive the plot and characterizations. For example, in this future there are three forbidden technologies: artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, and nanotech. One of the characters, Nickolai Rajasthan, is a genetically-engineered tiger with a strong religious background, yet he was created by the very technology which society is against. He is thus conflicted as to his own worth among the “Fallen” humans. Another example: Adam is hell-bent on destroying humans and sees himself as a God. From his point of view, he is humanity’s savior, even if it means releasing those unwilling to join him from the confines of their flesh. Another example: the trend to suppress technology has led to a cultish race of powerful beings known as the Proteans whose ministrations are god-like in themselves. Another example: The decree that “dangerous” technologies are forbidden lead to Toni Valentine’s assignment. Toni (who stumbles on Adam’s galactic-scale attack) is stationed near Sigma Draconis and its nearby wormhole. There’s some mind-bending science behind the wormholes themselves which traverse time and space such that traveling through it means traveling to the past or future, depending on your direction. Such abilities are what makes their use forbidden — and this story fun. These story elements whirlwind around each other throughout the novel creating a world that’s wonderfully imagined and intricate. (The trilogy itself is an extension of his already-established Confederacy universe which is home to other trilogies – that’s how fertile this setting is.)
The one misgiving about this future is that it’s somewhat hard to initially believe that, despite their meta-obvious focus in this trilogy’s plot and characters, the three heretical technologies are believed to be suppressible. Once Schrödinger’s cat’s out of the bag, it seems like it would be hard to get it back in. (Did humans not learn that that when MP3s were invented?) But accepting that premise is a very small buy-in to Swann’s otherwise well-conceived universe. Plus, for a book titled Heretics, I suppose it makes sense that all three verboten technologies are accounted for: Adam for artificial intelligence; Nickolai for genetic engineering; and the Proteans (and Adam again) for nanotech.
Heretics picks up right where Prophets left off. For readers who missed Prophets, Swann economically brings readers up to speed within a few short preliminary pages, while peppering additional tidbits throughout the rest of the story – so readers are never lost. Even so, it’d be worthwhile to start from the beginning. Swann’s blend of space opera, combined with his smooth prose delivery and drag-you-forward plot decisions, makes reading this like eating candy.