I missed a first-in-the-series, here, which is a bit frustrating; I’m usually pretty good about not doing that. Anyway, if it’s going to bug you like it annoys me, go read Dreamships first. This one will wait.
Scott likes tackling hard topics, and here she’s asking – when does intelligence become intelligence? When can, in crude terms, a computer be regarded as a being in its own right? Does there have to be a deliberate effort on the part of humans for it to happen, or could it develop accidentally? And when we finally find that silicone intelligence shares the same space as us… what will be our reaction? Because we have such a good track record of dealing with humans with different perspectives from our own, let alone an entirely different type of intelligence. Scott presents some intriguing suggestions to these questions – and a few answers, but nothing completely definitive. It’s nicely tantalising, in a lot of ways.
I generally love Scott’s worlds, and this is no different. Humanity has spread to several planets; this story is set on Persephone. For all that there’s some seriously upgraded tech, and that it’s set an unknown distance into the future, it still feels recognisably human. Like, after initial freak-out-edness, it seems like I could probably live on Persephone. This is probably helped by the fact that the story revolves around people whose own lives revolve around that rather ubiquitous human characteristic, a love of music. Initial events are spurred on by the death of much-loved music star, and one of the main characters has a souped-up illusions show at one of the ‘Empires’ – which I think are basically futuristic theatres, catering to a variety of entertainments, from rock music to vaudeville (or their futuristic equivalents). I love this idea that the human desire to be entertained, on the one hand, and the equally pressing desire to express oneself in public somehow, will continue into the future – it’s something that doesn’t get enough airplay in SF I think.
Another aspect of the world-building that I really appreciated is that it’s clearly not a monoculture. I think this is the one main area where not having read Dreamships was a problem (aside from a couple of plot points that I managed to catch up on); the use of ‘coolie’ and ‘yanqui’ and other terms clearly referring to ethnic background didn’t always make sense to me – or, where I could but out the basic meaning (like with those two), it sometimes took me a while to figure out all the subtleties, like whose allegiances lay where and who felt which grievances. Nonetheless – this is a future that is not overwhelmingly white, where cultures have continued to develop and take on bits and pieces of older traditions and moosh them together, and where people can live on the same planet and not be identical. Also, where a common expletive is “Elvis Christ”.
The plot? Assassinations, destruction of property, intrigue, romance – all revolving around that idea of artificial intelligence, how it might come about, what should be done about it if it does, whether machines taking over from humanity in any area is a good thing, and all of those good things.
Scott writes beautifully. She switches between characters effortlessly and gives each a distinct voice. She matches a great plot with hard questions and does wonderful service to both. It’s not quite as cyberpunk as, say, Trouble and Her Friends, but it’s wonderful science fiction.