(Update: Corrected the title of the book in the post title. I am a moron.)
Radio Freefall is author Matthew Jarpe’s first novel, though you would be hard pressed to tell. Set in the near future, Radio Freefall tells the story of aging rocker Aqualung (yes, from the Jethro Tull song) as he gets caught up in a web of AI, artificial life forms, global unification and revolution. Jarpe has mixed Stephenson’s knack for creating unusual yet accessible settings with Vinge’s rigid extrapolation of technology and topped it off with an interesting protagonist to create a very entertaining read that also touches on some interesting technological questions.
Jarpe’s setting is a near future Earth on the brink of global unification where the ‘government’ will be run by WebCense, an almost all-powerful technology corporation controlled by Walter Cheeseman. Cheeseman is what you would get if you took all the Digg and Slashdot anti-Bill Gates sentiment and upped the level to 11. He is monomaniacally dedicated to ruling over the world and will stop at nothing to achieve that goal. Arrayed against him is Aqualung, an aging rocker with a mysterious past who holds the key to stopping Cheeseman, and Quin Taber, a one-time employee of WebCense who has illegally created an A.I. called Molly to help him get his revenge on Cheeseman. Add to this mix an anti-globalization sentiment, and the recipe for a revolution is in the offing.
Jarpe’s future society is filled with high-tech creations, such as a low earth orbit settlement, Freefall, and a permanent city on the Moon. On Earth, the internet has morphed into an all pervasive entity whose upper levels are treacherous for humans to interface with. WebCense has also developed a high-speed human/net interface device to allow people to experience more of the net at once. Of course, the fact that WebCense is involved hints at more nefarious purposes for the dataspray. Inhabiting the upper level of the net is a digital entity called the Digital Carnivore. It appears to be a sort of artificial life that evolved from a simple worm-type virus many years before. Here is where we get into some deeper questions about the technology on display in the book. Can a virus ‘evolve’ into a somewhat self-aware entity? If so, is it really a lifeform? Jarpe also plays a bit with the concept of A.I.s. In his future, it is illegal to create A.I.s and tether them to a certain person, a process that is akin to slavery. We see why Molly was created and we also see the effect on ‘her’ once the tether is removed. Is it slavery to tether an A.I. in this manner? Is it even right to create one? These are some of the questions that infuse the story, adding some depth to it.
The story itself moves at a rapid clip. Jarpe’s prose is very readable and doesn’t hinder the reading process at all. The descriptions are clear and there is enough low-key humor to soften the story. Aqualung is basically swept up by events as people try to either kidnap him or kill him (but keep his brain alive) so as to get the key to unlocking the Digital Carnivore. Along the way, he becomes acquainted with Quin and Molly and eventually ends up on Freefall where he kickstarts the revolution against WebCense. Since Aqualung is a musician, music is used throughout the story to help set the mood. Jarpe has created lyrics for songs from the future, and this figure prominently at the start of each chapter. But music also plays a role in the story. Aqualung has created the Machine, an audience mood suggester and enhancer that is used to influence the emotions of the listening audience. This device is used to great effect late in the story.
I did have a couple of minor quibbles with the story. First, I felt that the revolution itself happens rather abruptly. Most of the story leading up to it focuses on Aqualung and Taber/Cheeseman, with the Nationalist anti-globalization thread living in the background. It takes center stage very quickly and drives the events of the last quarter of the book. Not really a big deal as the story is still quite entertaining, but the comparisons to The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress on the back cover set my expectations for a larger revolutionary role. Also, aside from Aqualung, I thought the characters themselves were a bit flat. Certainly, the secondary ones aren’t really fleshed out, with most of the characterization time being spent on Aqualung, Taber and Cheeseman, in that order. Because of this, characters tended to feel the ‘same’, although Aqualung’s band members are a different, even if they are a stereotypical rock band.
But those issues don’t really detract too much from what is not only a great first novel but also an immensely enjoyable story. If you like near future Earth stories, Radio Freefall should be on your reading list.