Thursday, 12 March 2009

On: Darwinia by Robert Charles Wilson


For someone like myself who is a long time reader of 'Space Opera' with a splash of cyber-punk, this book takes a long time to get at all interesting. In fact, if I hadn't already known the hidden depth of the plot (from a review of this Hugo award nominee) I probably wouldn't have bothered wading through the first 14 chapters; set in the 1920s, there's no indication that the book wasn't written in the same period until the “Interlude” where the cool, cosmological scale stuff is finally, abruptly, revealed. 

The end was as expected, reasonably solid, with no extra twists or turns. Heart stings are pulled sparingly, and the fighting is also more about boringly grim realism than all gun's blazing heroics.

Major spoilers: I presume this wasn't a plot hole (because they needed to be there at the right time) but: Tom Compton and Guilford Law are down the Psion's hole, in the abandoned city, mid way through the book, when they both have ghost's riding in them to an extent, it seems silly that they leave and then have to fight their way back 45 years later, perhaps Wilson should have made that a aspect clearer. The explanation of how the simulated Earth became split in the first place is half hearted. But of course, any arbitrary event is equally as feasible during a war between God-like intelligences in a simulated universe at the end of real time: an inherent problem of writing a book in such a setting. It's not clear what happened to all the souls of Eurasia in the “Miracle”, it seemed implied that the Psions had access to them with Vale communing with the dead. But as long as the makers of the Achieve ('good guys') have complete backups of the galactic history it contains, then only the individuals that had chance to deviate from their original selves (thanks to the evil Psions) represent potential casualties.

This book seems to be trying to be fully hardened science fiction: apart from techno-babble about (currently hypothetical) Higgs fields, the galactic Achieve is built in a universe suffering 'heat death' from continued expansion (what cosmologists now expect), rather than a Tiplerian Singularity at the end of a closed space-time. Similarly, the standpoint on artificial conciousness appears to be a compromise between fully Strong A.I. and the limitations Roger Penrose claims exist: Wilson has it that a machine can indeed be conscious as long as it's thought processes utilise certain quantum effects (indeterminacy & waveform collapsing, etc), exploiting the obvious hole I've always seen in Penrose's arguments. While the 'bad guys' in the book are only pseudo conscious, algorithm based entities. They are cunning enough to understand human motivations and adaptable enough to fight an information based war against the collective mind of an entire post galactic super-civilisation, but they apparently don't have that 'je ne sais quoi'.... Wilson doesn't explain further.

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