Recursion – Tony Ballantyne (2004)
‘IN A WORLD OF MANIPULATED REALITY, WHAT DOES IT TRULY MEAN TO BE HUMAN?
It is the twenty-third century. Herb, a young entrepreneur, returns to the isolated planet on which he has illegally been trying to build a city – and finds it destroyed by a swarming nightmare of self-replicating machinery. Worse, the all-seeing Environment Agency has been watching him the entire time. His punishment? A nearly hopeless battle in the farthest reaches of the universe against enemy machines twice as fast, and twice as deadly, as his own – in the company of a disarmingly confident AI who may not be exactly what he claims…
Little does Herb know that this war of machines was set in motion nearly two hundred years ago – by mankind itself. For it was then that a not-quite-chance encounter brought a confused young girl and a nearly omnipotent AI together in one fateful moment that may have changed the course of humanity forever.’
Blurb from the 2006 Bantam Spectra paperback edition
Ballantyne’s debut novel follows three characters in three different timelines.
In the earliest period, Eva is a suicidal waitress. On her well-planned second attempt to commit suicide by overdose, she was miraculously raised from the dead and sent to a facility for therapy.
Eva has long been convinced that an Intelligence has raised itself to awareness on the internet and is watching Humanity. No one believes her and now she is also hearing the voice of her dead brother in her head.
About a century later Constantine Storey is sent to a top-level meeting. Constantine is something of a secret agent, working for the Environment Agency, the nature of whose business is somewhat unclear.
Constantine also hears voices in his head, but they are drug-based additional personalities who possess additional skills for Constantine’s use.
The meeting is to decide whether or not to launch the first interstellar colony ship which will be accompanied by a terraforming AI. There are concerns as to whether the warp drive was invented by humans or by AIs. Constantine then discovers that he has been copied and is existing within a simulation run by political and business interests who are trying to discover what he brought back from his trip to an AI-free mars.
A hundred years on from this, Herb is a wealthy spoilt techie who has infested a world with his own Von Neumann machines in an attempt to create his own city. This has gone horribly wrong and the planet is now a seething mass of voracious machines.
The Environment Agency have been watching him however, and his ship is boarded by one Robert Johnson, who conscripts Herb to join a war against something so vast it takes up a scary percentage of the galaxy.
It’s a very clever piece of work. Ballantyne makes it clear that there are connections between the three, but you have to get a long way into the novel before things start matching up and the pattern emerges logically and inevitably.
Ballantyne is a fairly recent addition to the British SF scene of the Noughties, and it will be interesting to see the direction in which his work goes.