I’ve been rather ignoring this blog recently, so I thought I’d put up another reprint. This was the first volume in the Jump 225 Trilogy by David Louis Edelman, and first appeared in the New York Review of Science Fiction 221, January 2007.
This is the way the world works: dynasties do not last. Oh a royal house may continue from father to son for a while, but here the individual qualities of any particular monarch matter rather less than the institution they represent, and even so every two or three hundred years they will die out, be overthrown, or in some other way see their rule slip out of the family grasp. In other walks of life, dynasties don’t even last that long. In business, for example, the family name may be preserved for generations, but real control will have long since passed to an unrelated board. More often, successive generations will fritter away the family fortune, or get out of the business for a more congenial way of life.
This, however, is not the way fiction works. In fiction we are constantly encountering remarkable people who are remarkable mostly for what they have inherited from their remarkable forebears. In Infoquake, for example, we are presented with the Surina family in which, for more than three hundred years, successive generations have produced a scientific genius whose discoveries have transformed the world. One scientific genius transforming the world is one of those things we science fiction readers have become used to swallowing. Four or five of them, all in the same family, all performing the same trick, sticks in the throat. I don’t believe a word of it.
This is the way fiction works: it creates a world, which may be as like or as unlike our world as the author dares, and which we come to understand through the story being told. Occasionally we have become used to extraneous material being introduced, a list of characters in a sprawling Russian novel or a map in a second-rate fantasy, but generally the more an author feels the need for this material the more justified we are in feeling that the author has failed in the primary task of telling it all in the story. David Louis Edelman has devoted the last 40 pages of his novel to no fewer than six addenda, including a glossary, a timeline, a history of the Surina family, a (cod) explanation of the (cod) science in the book and so on. There is nothing in any of these addenda that should not have been crystal clear through the story alone.
In other words, Edelman has the cards stacked against him. Yet in the end the novel works. It is a brisk, well-told science fiction adventure set in the normally unadventurous world of business. The addenda are irrelevant (they are the sort of notes that any writer might make in preparing a complex story, and they should have remained as working notes rather than being included in the book). The dynastic problem remains, exacerbated by the fact that Edelman keeps dropping into the conversation banal biens pensées from various members of this dynasty. Maybe it’s just me, but I’m not normally inclined to quote the great thinkers of the past at every opportunity; I’m particularly unlikely to say, ‘As my great-great-great grandfather said …’. Nor do most of the people I talk to, especially in business situations. Unfortunately, practically the entire cast of this novel is addicted to quotation. It shackles the novel with the weight of the past; for a work that is brashly forward looking in its content, it is remarkably backward looking in its cast. But even this doesn’t get too much in the way of the action, so let’s concentrate on the action for the balance of this review.
For a novel that is essentially about the fear and promise of the future, Infoquake is heavy with history. We learn that mankind developed Artificial Intelligence, but the AI’s revolted and a devastating war followed which humanity won. This resulted in a luddite regime from which we were rescued by Sheldon Surina, founder of the dynasty, who taught humanity to love machines again. The principle advances by Surina and his successors was a form of nanotechnology introduced into the human body initially as a way of controlling disease, but then as a way of interfacing directly with digital technology. Now, some 300 years after Sheldon, the technology allows people to send a digital avatar of themselves anywhere in the world. Meanwhile, the world’s principal industry is the manufacture of programs for these nanobots, programs that allow you, for instance, to change your eye colour to match the flowers around you, or to put on a poker face whenever you wish. This industry is carried out by ‘fiefcorps’, which represent an extreme form of free-market capitalism. Meanwhile, in the absence of national governments, the old luddite tendency has spawned the Defence and Wellness Council which polices the fiefcorps and their works, and whose Orwellian name tells us that these are the anti-capitalist baddies.
Our guide through this complex business landscape is Natch (yes, I know, the name is another mark against Edelman who seems to be one of those old-fashioned science fiction writers who believes that in the near future the old slowly developed human naming conventions will disappear at a stroke to be replaced by more or less random combinations of consonants and vowels). Natch heads up a small but dynamic fiefcorp, and seeing it in operation we realise that Edelman has devised a complex, not particularly attractive but certainly workable business model. Natch himself is a charismatic pirate: we follow him from childhood all the way to the verge of his greatest success, noting the ruthless and often dubious methods he finds to propel himself up the greasy pole. His closest subordinates are forever fretting about the ethics of what they are called upon to do; nevertheless they do it with impressive energy and consistent loyalty. Time and again we are told how they are using some patent program that allows them to avoid the need to sleep for several days at a time so they can push themselves to the limit on Natch’s latest wheeze. It sounds like an incredibly stressful and exploitative environment; nevertheless Natch is presented a morally dubious hero and the system is meant to be applauded, capitalism red in tooth and claw. In the opening pages of the novel we see Natch engineer a rumour that nearly brings about the collapse of the entire world financial system in order to manoeuvre himself into the number one spot for fiefcorps, even if only for a few hours. I’m with the Defence and Wellness Council, personally.
Natch’s coup brings him to the attention of Margaret Surina, the latest in the long line of congenital geniuses, who calls on him to handle the launch of MultiReal, yet another new product that is going to change the world. Needless to say, this is a poisoned chalice and Natch finds himself having to co-operate with a lifelong mortal enemy, endure a kidnapping and face the armies of the Defence and Wellness Council. I had no idea that business could be such a violent affair, but Edelman handles it all with considerable narrative drive. We forget the inconsistencies, the unlikeliness, the moral dodginess of it all, to be swept up in a simple old-fashioned story, where incident crowds onto incident, where jeopardy makes us hold our breath and rabbits are pulled from the hat only at the very last moment. So in the end the melodrama keeps us reading and awaiting with some interest the next volume in the trilogy.