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REVIEW: Recursion by Tony Ballantyne

REVIEW SUMMARY: Steadily improving work that delivers some interesting ideas.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: In 2210 a young man decides to defy the galactic authority and creates a Von Neumann Machine (VNM) capable of terraforming an entire planet. Unfortunately his programming is a shoddy and he ends up destroying the planet instead. He’s caught, and then ends up in a massive web of intrigue involving 200 year old plots to deal with rogue AIs released into the galaxy.


PROS: Very interesting ideas around the hazards of AIs and self-replicating machinery.

CONS: Writing starts out weak, characters end up thinner than they initially appear.

BOTTOM LINE: I found myself quite put off by Recursion when I first started it, but by the end I was cheering the author for his interesting use of technology and some of the grand ideas of science fiction.

I bought this book right before a trip to Florida. That flight turns out to be just perfect for a reasonable mass-market paperback because I generally read about 100 pages per hour and the total of a five hour round-trip means I can easily get a 400 page book finished with time left over to make some polite smalltalk with whomever is sitting near me. But when I started this one, I was a little worried – the initial parts of the book are hard to get into and somewhat simply written. As the book progresses the story kicks into gear, the ideas begin to flow, and Ballantyne’s prose improves to quite respectable. By the end, I was hanging on every page wondering exactly where the author was taking me next.

The future depicted by Ballantyne is somewhat of a mystery, and he uses the book as a way to explore that mystery and ultimately explain its evolution. One of the best parts of the world he predicts is that it isn’t that far away from our own. The technology advances, certainly, but humans continue to behave much like they have for thousands of years. Here is an example of the future he paints:

To so many people alive at the start of the twenty-second century, the real world was a commodity like any other, sold shrink-wrapped, dated, and best befored. Whether it was freshly baked bread, imitation grit of the millstone baked inside it, or a weekend in a country house with a trout river running through the grounds, the real world had to have authenticity added before it could be sold.

And there are several dirty little secrets around in this world that need that vernier. From replicating machinery run amok, to AIs gone rogue, to interstellar computer viruses, this future has many things to be concerned about. The technologies have also been used for some good, certainly. VNMs build arcologies on the harshest of terrain to ease the overcrowding of the Earth. Warp drive enables mankind’s expansion throughout the solar system and beyond. And AI systems help run the planet and eliminate many of our current ailments.

What surprised me most about the book is Ballantyne’s humor. Humor is often very difficult to convey in a book, but his characters banter and sarcasm come through with very well. Here is an example from early in the book when Herb has been caught red handed orbiting above the planet he has annihilated.

 “That doesn’t mean we couldn’t cut a deal, though. I could have you transferred to an Earth prison instead. Get your sentence cut to about a year. Even arrange for some remedial training in the responsible applications of self-replicating machines.”

 Herb sat up straighter, though without as much enthusiasm as he would have expected. His constantly changing fate was making him feel drained and passive.

 As it was supposed to.

 He gave a weak smile. “Would you?” he said.

 “Oh, yes,”, said Johnston. “If it was anybody else but you.”

If I have a complaint about the book besides the start, it is that the characters are relatively thin. The funny part to me was how initially they seemed more complex (complete with flaws and eccentricities) but ultimately ended up shallower than I prefer. The characters of Herb and Constantine appear to have some tremendous opportunities to grow and learn but instead stay relatively static. The character of Eva goes through some tremendous changes with plenty of depth, but somehow ends up flat in the end. But these are relatively minor nits that don’t spoil the overall novel.

So ultimately we have a tale that warns us of the hazards of our technology. To be sure he has some interesting ideas in here and there is more that I won’t spoil, but in writing this thoroughly modern hard sci-fi Ballantyne has done a great job capturing the classic spirit of sci-fi as well. I was glad I took the time to read this one, and I’m thinking of reading the sequel as well – especially if I have another trip.

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