My life in outer space

Posts tagged “virtual reality

The Mind Pool – Charles Sheffield (1986)

The Mind Pool

The original version of this novel was The Nimrod Hunt, written as a tribute to Alfred Bester and attempting a Besterite style. This was revised and re-released with the title of ‘The Mind Pool’ as Sheffield was apparently not happy with the original ending.
Centuries from now, Man has moved out into space and formed alliances with a group of alien races. The aliens are all, it appears, mentally unable to accept the concept of killing sentient life and are both appalled and fascinated by Humanity’s casual attitude to killing even members of its own species.
A human scientist, Livia Morgan, under the command of Esro Mondrian, Head of Border Security, has been experimenting with sentient constructs to patrol the borders of Human space as a precaution against contact with hostile aliens.
The constructs turn on their master however and are destroyed, but not before one escapes through a Mattin Link (a matter transmitter essentially) to another part of Human space.
The alien council, having been notified, determine that teams, each one containing members of each alien race, be trained to hunt the construct.
The aliens have stipulated that the human elements must have no prior military training, which makes selection practically impossible unless one searches on the most lawless planet in space, which happens to be Earth.
Esro Mondrian has two other reasons for visiting Earth. One is to meet his lover, Lady Tatiana, a woman addicted to the Paradox drug. The other is revealed later in the novel.
Luther Brachis has a friendly but competitive work relationship with Esro, but employs devious means to achieve his ends, actions which set in motion a complex series of events.
There’s an awful lot going on in this novel which is a lot more complex – structurally and in terms of plot – than other Sheffield works. We have troubled and complex relationships, trips to other worlds, space station laboratories, the grotesques of the warrens of Earth and a set of aliens that are biologically fascinating, but imbued with cosy Simak-esque personalities. Indeed, there are elements of this that remind one of ‘The Werewolf Principle’ particularly when we encounter the Mind Pool phenomenon, whereby a mental gestalt is achieved.
We have three couples, all of whom have issues of one sort or another, the male halves being irrevocably changed by the end of the novel. Indeed, some characters undergo a form of role reversal.
We meet Chan Dalton, central figure of the sequel ‘The Spheres of Heaven’ as a physically perfect male but with the mental development of a small child. Since his childhood he has been looked after by Leah, who loves him. Mondrian, desperate for recruits, and having bought Leah and Dalton’s indenture without having realised Dalton’s deficiencies, decides to employ banned technology to try and stimulate Chan’s mind into growth.
By the end of the novel Chan is a mature intelligent individual while Brachis and Mondrian, for different reasons, have been left in a mentally vegetative state, now being cared for by their respective partners, as Leah once cared for Chan.
The Morgan Construct itself is almost immaterial to the story. It is a Maguffin around which this complex interplay of politics and relationships is wound.
It has its flaws. There’s a certain retro SF style to it, in keeping with Sheffield’s claim that the novel is an Alfred Bester tribute. This works well enough in all the locations barring Earth itself which is roughly sketched with little depth and containing characters that border on parody.
The Mind Pool element is introduced very late in the story and its genesis and method of operation is a little unclear, at least to me.
On balance though, it’s a great bit of space opera featuring a set of main characters with unusually complex motivations.

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The Accord – Keith Brooke (2009)

The Accord

“The Accord, a virtual utopia where the soul lives on after death and your perceptions are bound only by your imagination. This is the setting for a tale of love, murder and revenge that crosses the boundaries between the real world and this virtual reality”—

Blurb from the 2009 Solaris edition

One of the blurbs for this novel is a line from a review that says ‘one of the best novels of virtual reality ever written’ which actually pays this a disservice since it is far far more than that.
Noah Barakh is the architect of a worldwide project called The Accord. The Accord is a virtual representation of the Earth into which the consciousnesses of those who have been scanned are uploaded when the individuals die.
Noah is heading toward the point at which the Accord, guided by the consensus of those who have already begun living within it, will coalesce conflating various realities into one.
Barakh lives in a future UK where MPs have evolved into Electees. Electee Jack Burnham is fully behind the Accord project unaware that Noah (a rather too apt name for the builder of an ark of human souls) is in love with Electee Priscilla Burnham, Jack’s wife. Noah has been experimenting with his own Accord mini-realities where he and Priscilla are lovers.
In the real world Priscilla, it appears, does feel an attraction to Noah and invites him to her home while Jack is away. Jack is not away, however, and wrongly suspects that Noah and his wife have been having an affair for some time. He shoots Priscilla and later Noah, who – now dead – are reborn in The Accord.
This is only the prelude to where things start to get very interesting.
Brooke cleverly leaves the morality of some aspects to the reader. Noah’s initial creations of his and Priscilla’s relationship, for instance, would no doubt be considered to be a violation of her ‘digital self’ for want of a better phrase. Added to that, the versions of Priscilla that were in love with Noah were no doubt uploaded into the Accord to become part of the consensus.
This leads us further into Brooke’s exploration of the concept of editing personalities. It appears that the scanning technology allows one to not merely edit a personality but combine aspects of various personalities to create a new one.
It is this aspect of the novel that ultimately becomes the most fascinating since in such a reality (if one can term it so) one is not restricted to simply altering one’s surroundings.
Jack Burnham, for instance, who on the original Earth was prepared to kill anyway, embarks on a process whereby he becomes an amalgam of several people in order to turn himself into a remorseless destroyer.
In the Accord itself, if one is killed, one is reborn again shortly after, although it appears that the Accord itself changes one slightly in the process.
Thus, the characters that are pursuing their earthly passions and revenge are ultimately far from the original consciousnesses that existed on the dying earth that they left.
Brooke makes a marvellous job of creating an Earth on the brink of apocalypse where Britain is having to make choices about turning away armadas of boat people, as well as the world of the Accord where Noah’s uploaded scientists managed to export the Accord itself into quantum space.
As I have said however, the most fascinating and thought-provoking aspect of all this is the Post-Dickian examination of consciousness, questioning its very nature and the idea that it can be easily modified by oneself or others.
Despite the deceptively upbeat ending, one is left long after the book has ended, pondering the ethical and moral issues.
It’s a tour-de-force by Brooke, one of our best contemporary SF writers.


New York Blues – Eric Brown (2001)

New York Blues (Virex Trilogy, #2)

‘Hal Halliday is just another of the lost, crowding the streets of New York, mired in a 21st Century that is going nowhere. His business partner is dead and Hal is keeping their missing persons business going without really knowing why.

When a holodrama star approaches Hal to find her missing sister Hal is drawn into the world of dreams set up by VR magnate Sergio Mantoni. It is a world built on the desperate lives of a population of a ruined America; a world facing a new challenge from VIREX, an underground movement dedicated to ending the false promise of Virtual Reality.’

Blurb from the 2002 Gollancz Edition

Hal Halliday, Private Eye, still in mourning from the death of his partner Barney and the loss of his girlfriend, Kim, is commissioned by vampish VR starlet Vanessa Artois (One can’t help thinking her name should have been Stella) to find her missing sister, Canada.
This is a step up from ‘New York Nights’ in many ways. The pace is faster, the mood is darker, and although initially one might feel that the plot of NYN is being rehashed, we are taken into areas where it seems no one can be trusted.
Brown seems to have found his feet here, and having established his world with NYN can afford to dive straight into the action and shadow Hal as he follows clues and leads from location to location. A sub-plot involving members of the anti-VR organisation VIREX ends up being a little redundant and adds nothing to the plot other than to give Hal a clue as to the identity of the kidnapper.
An interesting feature of this novel is that Brown extrapolates the ambivalent nature of contemporary internet sexual identities to its logical conclusion. People entering VR sex-sites can choose the age and sex of their avatar. Mantoni’s hitman, Pablo for instance (a large muscular moustachioed Mexican) has regular meetings with Mantoni in a VR environment and adopts the persona of an attractive blonde female, often resulting in a sexual encounter with Mantoni. Mantoni is fully aware of Pablo’s ‘real’ form, but is nonetheless happy to engage in the sexual activities which Pablo initiates.
Halliday himself, in order to set a trap for the kidnapper, poses as a teenage girl in the Eros VR site and finds himself in the position of experiencing a teenage girl’s sexual arousal at Mantoni’s overtures.
Brown does not explore the issue in any depth, but thankfully neither does he moralise or allow Halliday outbursts of righteous self-disgust at these feelings.
The subject matter of course, relates directly to contemporary worries about older men (or indeed women) ‘grooming’ children on the internet whom the subsequently meet in the real world, which no doubt strikes a chord with many parents of internet users.
It’s a novel of a certain type, in that it is a lightweight, enjoyable read. ‘For those who like this sort of thing, then this is the sort of thing they will like’. It will appeal, I would imagine to those who don’t read a lot of Science Fiction.
My main problem with it (and it’s a minor niggle) is Halliday who, despite his dead boss and absconded ex-girlfriend, is just too patient and too likeable. Detectives should have psychological problems and speak rudely to anyone within earshot, or else have a deep dark secret. Even Sherlock Holmes had his seven percent solution to take the edge off his too-good-to-be true-ness. They should be tolerated only because they are the only ones capable of solving the case. Being nice is just not an option.


Dark Heavens – Roger Levy (2003)

Dark Heavens: Await the Willing Dead

“Our planet is dying, literally falling apart. Our attempt to colonise Dirangesept, the one other habitable world we’ve found, have been bloody failures. All that’s left now is to wait for one last desperate effort to slaughter the beasts of Dirangesept. Or to Leave…

The Leavings. Consensual Mass Suicides. The last acts of those in search of salvation. Thousands of people at a time, promised heaven by a new crop of prophets. And delivered there with the connivance of the authorities.

Cy Auger works for CMS. It’s his job to ensure that the Leavings aren’t a cover for mass murder. With his wife in a virtual coma, new rifts opening in the ground every day and pollution threatening to kill everyone long before the planet tears apart, Cy might imagine that things couldn’t get much worse.

Until a series of deaths at the General Medical School open the door on a conspiracy that cuts to the core of whatever remaining hope the world has. And forces Cy to face again the day his wife was lost to him.”

Blurb from the 2004 Gollancz paperback edition

Levy’s noir future thriller is fast paced and in the style of (though not as stylish as ) Richard Morgan.
Cy Auger works for CMS, a kind of Watchdog organisation monitoring and licensing those who organise Consensual Mass Suicides, attempting to ensure that the suicides are, in fact, fully consensual.
When Auger (everyone calls him Auger) becomes interested in two identical solo ‘suicides’ the powers-that-be and even his own colleagues, appear not too keen for him to get involved. And so unravels an intricate conspiracy involving CMS, clandestine genetic engineers and VR designers and high levels of government.
Auger is your classic noir detective. He has enemies within his own department, an attitude problem and a maverick idealistic streak. His wife is brain-damaged, having been blown-up on the day of their wedding and constantly reliving the last five minutes before the accident.
His friends and acquaintances keep getting killed as well, which doesn’t encourage him to become close to anyone.
However, despite being cliché-ridden, it is a very competent cyberpunk thriller with fascinating central premise.


Mother of Storms – John Barnes (1994)

Mother of Storms

Barnes is not one of those authors who finds a particular niche within the genre and fills it with novels of a similar style and content. His work includes the Galactic Human Society of ‘A Million Open Doors’ and ‘Earth Made of Glass’, the parallel universes of ‘Finity’ and here, a near-future disaster novel in which a small nuclear explosion in the Arctic releases a huge amount of methane trapped in the polar ice.
The consequence of this is that Hurricanes, of a size and ferocity never before seen, begin to form and head off to terrorise the world.
The background to Barnes’ novel is just as fascinating as he has created a near-future world in which the US is no longer a superpower, the dominant force being the UN. Europe appears to have devolved into some kind of Nazi Federation which has exiled ‘Afropeans’ – European black people – to the rest of the world, but mainly America. The popular form of entertainment which has supplanted ‘flat’ TV is XV, a form of direct sensory experience recorded on wedges.
The action follows various groups of people who are all connected in some way. Di Callare is a meteorological specialist who becomes a government advisor when the crisis erupts. His young brother Jesse gets caught up in the turmoil in Mexico where he meets a vacationing XV porn star, Synthi Venture. Berlina Jamieson, an exiled Afropean, suddenly finds a market for her retro ‘flat’ style of news reporting.
Out in space, Louie Tynan, an American astronaut, is commandeered to report on the hurricanes from his unique vantage point and finds himself infected with a nanovirus which begins to ‘improve’ him, following which he starts to evolve in unexpected and intriguing ways.
The unfortunately named Randy Householder is the distraught father of a teenage girl who was raped and murdered in order to make a snuff XV recording. Randy is determined to find the man who commissioned the recording and discovers that his investigations are taking him rather high up the political ladder.
This is then, no mere disaster novel. In fact, the sequences where the monster hurricanes destroy cities and countries are not that frequent, but are brilliantly, thrillingly written and conceived. Barnes employs the disaster to bring the various story threads together quite convincingly and one never thinks, as is the case with lesser authors, that the coincidences and connections between the characters are too improbable.
Like the hurricane itself, ‘Mother of Storms’ begins slowly and gathers pace to finally rattle along breathlessly to its conclusion.
Arguably Barnes’ best novel.


New York Nights – Eric Brown (2000)

New York Nights (Virex Trilogy, #1)

‘2040. New York is crowded with the lost. Refugees from the radioactive eastern seaboard, the splintered remains of a society in freefall, walk the streets and spend their last dollars on an hour snatched in one of the new Virtual Reality paradises.

In a society bent on escape, Missing Persons is a good business to be in. If nothing else it keeps Hal Halliday busy enough to avoid his past.

But the past is not so easy to escape.

NEW YORK NIGHTS is a fast moving yet thought-provoking SF thriller. It examines the human costs of isolation and escapism in a future that offers wild possibilities.’

Blurb from the 2001 Gollancz paperback edition

This, the first novel in the Virex trilogy introduces Hal Halliday – an affable New York ex-cop turned private eye of the mid Twenty-First Century – and his older partner Barney.
The duo run a semi-successful business chasing missing persons and assisting the local PD with cold cases.
Hal is intrigues by the case of Sissy Nigeria, reported missing by her lesbian lover. It’s a seemingly simple case but one which becomes more complex when Hal is attacked by a shape-shifter in the missing woman’s flat.
Sissy’s home computer system has been burnt out and Hal later discovers that her research work for Cybertech involved the creation of machine intelligence.
Despite a lack of complexity and some coincidences which stretch credulity, Brown has created a compelling an highly readable novel which races along like a cyborg greyhound.
The most intriguing aspect is perhaps Brown’s depiction of a Lesbian Separatist community of which his estranged sister is a member. He manages to avoid cliched stereotypes without being preciously politically correct, and sets the stage for the next two books in the series. Indeed the whole novel has the feel of the TV pilot which sets up the relationships between the major characters and sets them in context before moving on to the meat and potatoes of the narrative.
Brown doesn’t go far enough to explore the potentialities of VR, although there are some truly innovative moments, such as the interactive holosoap. One can log in to a virtual city, adopt a character and literally become one of the three million stories in the Naked City, which run perpetually.
‘New York Nights’ is that rare thing in SF of the period, a novel which is too short. One expects the detective to be wrong-footed by red herrings and following various nebulous leads. This is what detectives do. If one compares this to Morgan’s ‘Altered Carbon’ – a novel of similar style but superior quality – one immediately notes the differences. Morgan’s novel is full of character and location detail, layered over a zig-zagging plotline. Brown lacks the detail and therefore this novel, although workmanlike, lacks atmosphere.


Mindplayers – Pat Cadigan (1987)

Mindplayers

For Allie, putting on the madcap that Jerry borrowed was a very big mistake. The psychosis itself was quite conventional, but it didn’t go away when she took the madcap off, so the Brain Police took over leaving her with a choice – go to jail as a mind criminal or become a mindplayer.’

Blurb from the 2000 Gollancz SF Collectors Edition

‘Mindplayers’ comes from the heyday of cyberpunk and is set in a world where people can sell or edit their memories, enter another’s psyche, peddle psychoses and explore their own inner landscapes where old friends and relatives exist, powered by the memory of their living selves.
When Alexandra’s friend Jerry Wirerammer persuades her to try an illegal mindplayer helmet it leads to arrest for both of them. For Jerry, this is the start of a downward spiral into criminal activity and worse, but for Alexandra (or Deadpan Allie as she subsequently becomes known) it opens up a whole new future. Allie it seems leads a very mental life and is given (as an alternative to criminal charges) the chance to train as Mindplayer. From here on we follow Allie’s life and examine the influences that the people with whom she comes into contact have on her.
It is a seemingly straightforward novel which, on closer reading, examines rather more complex concepts than may at first be apparent.
The central idea which Cadigan explores is that of identity and seems to be asking the question ‘Are we truly individuals when we are changed by everyone with whom we come into contact?’
In our normal world this would be a profound question but it takes on a new dimension in a society where one can enter the psyche of another or download their memories.
Following her training, Allie decides to become a pathosfinder, which, to all intents and purposes is a therapist-cum-mind surveyor, assessing her clients’ psyches in order to advise them whether they are suited for the path they’ve chosen in life.
Allie is confronted again and again with the question whether a personality can ‘transfer’ from one mind to another. Her old friend Jerry Wirerammer contacts her (usually when he is in trouble) and demonstrates the issue when he sells his personality to a Persona Hire company, and subsequently has many of his memories erased to prevent himself being incriminated in various felonies. Ultimately there are more of Jerry’s memories in other people’s heads than in his own.
There are later novels set in the same universe, such as ‘Fools’ which is a far darker, more complex piece.
This, however, is fast, accessible, unfailingly inventive throughout and bursting with concepts about consciousness which are practically Zen-like in their philosophical implications.
And it’s funny. What more could one ask for?


Permutation City – Greg Egan (1994)

Permutation City

Egan, although a completely different stylist, can be considered thematically to be a direct descendant of Philip K Dick since Egan explores the same philosophical territory. In both authors’ work the questions are asked ‘What does ‘real’ mean?’, ‘What is the nature of identity?’ and ‘What does it mean to be human?’
A young woman, Maria Deluca, who earns a patchy living writing security software, spends some of her time running simulations in the Autoverse, a shared online space where virtual micro-organisms can be created in tailored habitats and left to evolve. So far, no one has managed to come up with the right combination of factors that have led to a successful virtual organism. When she is the one to make the breakthrough she receives a call from a man offering her a job.
This is a world where one can download one’s personality and achieve a form of immortality. Due to the constraints of dataspace, life as a virtual consciousness runs some seventeen times slower than in the ‘real’ world. Her benefactor, Paul Durham, has told her that he has found a way to create a virtual city whose processing power expands exponentially. It is a virtual universe which is, in effect, creating itself.
He also claims to have existed in several other parallel worlds and committed suicide in order that his ‘copies’ could continue until he discovered the secret of his self-perpetuating city. Several millionaire ‘copies’ have been approached and offered the option to download their minds into the city.
Her job, if indeed that was his motive, was to seed a planet in the virtual solar system with her Autoverse bacteria in order that they can evolve.
Unaware that he has scanned her mind for such a purpose, she awakens in the virtual city several thousand subjective years into its existence, at a time when not only has the Autoverse planet evolved intelligent life, but the ruling figures in the city are debating whether to make contact.
Undoubtedly brilliantly written and boldly conceived, the novel suffers from a lack of cohesion between the various elements, from Maria’s world into Durham’s city is a disorienting leap, made all the more disturbing by the suggestion that we may have viewed the same characters in several parallel universes.
Egan is never an easy read but is, I guarantee, worth persevering with. It’s an experience that will stay with you, and he don’t half make you think.


A Maze of Death – Philip K Dick (1970)

A Maze of Death

‘Delmak-O was one big deathtrap…

Fourteen people arrive in the strange planet of Delmak-O, each looking forward to a new life in a new world. But what is the huge forbidding building near their settlement that plays on each individual’s fears and superstitions? And what are the tiny artificial insects which observe the colonists with minute TV cameras?

Without warning, the murders begin…’

Not one of Dick’s most important novels, but one in which he again experiments with the novel structure and explores once more his favourite themes of madness, reality, religion and the human condition.
Prefaced by a chapter listing which bears little relation to the events in the book, it is a tale at first strangely reminiscent of classic murder mysteries, in particular, Agatha Christie’s ‘Ten Little Indians’.
A group of professionals are posted to the planet Delmak-O on a mission whose purpose is to be specified once they are all assembled.
Christie’s novel begins the same way in that ten professionals are invited to an island by a mysterious host.
As in ‘Ten Little Indians’, once the group is assembled, all communication and means of escape are cut off.
Dick’s characters live within a society which subscribes to a single religion, based on ‘The Book’ by Specktowsky, which seems to be an amalgam of today’s major religions, one in which prayer is beamed to the ‘god worlds’ by electronic means.
The purpose of their mission is never revealed, but it soon becomes apparent that this is a disturbingly dysfunctional and motley band of individuals who suffer from various psychological problems, ranging through alcoholism, nymphomania, paranoia, drug dependency, and the usual Dick armada of mental conditions. In contrast to ‘Clans of The Alphane Moon’ in which disparate sufferers of mental illness made up for each other’s failings and worked together, friction appears inevitable within the group.
This is not helped by the actions of baffling phenomena; the shifting geography of the landscape, the mysterious fortress-like building which appears to move from place to place, insects which spy on the group with recording equipment.
The group repeat their conversations word for word on occasions, and before long, one of the newest arrivals, Ben Tallchief, is found dead.
Ben believed that his electronic prayer to the god worlds for a more interesting posting had been answered, but as others debate later, why should God answer his prayer only in order to kill him as soon as he arrives?
It is clear that the group are not living in a realistic environment, something which, on first reading is hard to determine since Dick’s environments are seldom realistic and in this case we are also dealing with the subjective viewpoints of several characters, and the mystery is not who is murdering the characters but what exactly is going on in a wider sense.
The main focus is on Seth Morley, whom we meet initially in the Tekel Upharsin kibbutz. Before he and his wife Mary leave for Delmak-O he is visited by The Walker On Earth, one of the four aspects of ‘God’, a Christ-like figure who advises Seth not to use ‘The Morbid Chicken’ (the small spaceship he’d chosen to travel to Delmak-O) and points out a non-defective craft.
Again, later it is questioned why the walker did not counsel Seth against going to the planet in the first place.
Ultimately it is discovered that the group are in fact the crew of a disabled ship who have been locked into orbit around an uncharted dead star for about twenty years and are attempting to preserve their sanity by regular escape into a shared virtual reality in which they have no access to their previous memories.
However, even this, it is suggested, may itself be a delusional reality since when returned from the illusory world of Delmak-O, Seth Morley is once more approached by The Walker on Earth and is taken away to enjoy a new life as a cactus, living quietly in the desert.
In the shared dream of Delmak-O, the basic psychoses of the group members come to the fore and their subconscious hostilities toward each other are unleashed.
It’s a shame that Dick chose to employ so many characters as in such a short novel he’s not given space to explore their personalities fully, although they do come across as having more depth than characters in other genre novels of the time.
Susie Smart, one of Dick’s dark-haired femme-fatales, is one of the more interesting characters, announcing herself to Seth Morley almost immediately as the settlement nymphomaniac, flitting from male to male to offer sexual favours, a practice which is ultimately her downfall since she arouses the jealousy of Mrs Morley, who subsequently murders her.
Dick is attempting to examine how humans, with their repressed feelings, psychoses, desires and resentments are released from our inhibitions in what is essentially a dream state, a condition in which one is removed from the restraints of one’s true memories and experiences.
There are also some interesting points made about religion since it transpires that the entire Specktowsky theology was distilled from the basics of human religions and conflated into a working philosophy.
It is the one thing which permeates the lives of the group and connects them as individuals. Despite the group’s obvious faith, their prayers and faith have no tangible beneficial effects. On the contrary, it seems that their faith is counter-productive. Maggie Walsh, the theologian, is perhaps the one most dedicated to the faith, although her ‘obsession’ is to be her downfall since as she attempts to use quotations from ‘The Book’ to win over the appositely named Ignatz Thugg, she is shot and killed.
Tony Dunkenwelt, who enters trance states in order to commune with the four aspects of the Deity, kills one of the group whom he is convinced is The Form Destroyer (The ‘Devil’ aspect of Specktowsky’s philosophy) and is in turn shot dead.
Despite the fact that this is far from Dick’s best novel, it’s very representative of his talent for playing with conceptions of reality and demonstrating that reality is subjective, and exclusive to every individual.