Friday, May 18, 2007

Tony Ballantyne's "Recursion": FACT group discussion and my opinion

11 members of the FACT reading group attended the discussion of Tony Ballantyne's "Recursion" on March 20, 2007. Nobody has read anything by Ballantyne before, because this is his first novel. Everybody in the group has started the book. About half the people finished it. Some of the rest were planning to finish, but a couple of people were so disappointed by the beginning that they put the book aside.

Three storylines: some dull, some exciting

"Recursion" consists of three storylines, set at different times in the future. In the storyline set in the most distant future, a human and a robot fight Van Neumann Machines (VNMs), self-reproducing assemblers that threaten to overtake the whole universe by converting all matter to VNMs. This storyline is introduced first, and unfortunately most readers found it rather boring, which demotivated some of them to continue reading. The protagonist, Herb, is a self-centered young man from a privileged background, with more money than common sense. It would seem such a person would have enough foibles to make him a vivid character, but most readers found him dull. It may have to do with the fact that instead of actively seeking solutions, he kind of just goes along for a ride. Not that he wanted anything more to begin with: the only reason he went on a mission to save the universe was because he was blackmailed into doing that by the robot Robert. Robert is immensely smarter than Herb, and has all sorts of information Herb does not. As a result, Herb ends up being hardly more than a puppet for Robert, who drags him off, kicking and screaming, on a series of nauseatingly scary adventures. Robert keeps him clueless about his plans until the very end, where Herb is supposed to play a critical part. Since Herb was, albeit unwillingly, hardly more than a passive observer throughout his adventures, the readers did not find him interesting. To quote one reader, "Herb's any real emotion was wetting his pants."

The second character, Constantine, was found to be on the average more interesting. His most intriguing aspect was his four personalities, voices in his head, that bickered among themselves and gave him advice. However, the storyline and characters most people found most interesting was a woman named Eva and her friends, fellow inmates of a psychiatric hospital. Readers thought Eva was the most credible of the three protagonists, and admired the way the author got into Eva's head. Some thought Ballantyne's skill in creating Eva showed he could have done a better job with the other two protagonists. The portrayal of the society Eva lived in -- one reader described it as "nanny-socialist state run amock, making sure that all needs are met, whether you want them to be met or not", was found compelling as well.

Some premises of 'Recursion' people found hard to accept

The premise of the book -- the fight against self-replicating machines that are taking over the universe -- was judged by various readers to be

  1. a bit of a stretch;

  2. a cliche, made worse because Ballantyne

    • didn't add much new to it,

    • spent too much time explaining what Van Neumann machines are, given that a fairly high percentage of the readership was familiar with this concept from other science fiction works.

Regarding point (1), two readers could not take seriously the premise that there can be a society with no safeguards against someone accidentally launching a plague of self-assembling machines, or "grey goo". At the very least a runaway grey goo problem would have happened much sooner and on a much bigger scale, they thought.

That wasn't the only concept in "Recursion" people found hard to accept. The idea that an AI tests its behavior against the "crazy" people, and it bases its decisions regarding the future of humanity on reactions of the inmates of a mental asylum -- that idea was not found credible by some people. A reader said "The whole concept of testing against the extremes and basing your decision on the extreme... it's not why you do testing. [...] You use extremes to determine the middle to where you should stay, you don't use extremes to base your decision on."

Reasons to like "Recursion"

But not everybody was disappointed in "Recursion". One person said he liked it because "it was different. When I was reading it, I really couldn't tell what was going to happen 50 pages from now. This book constantly kept me guessing." The people who liked it, although they were in the minority, enjoyed the puzzle aspect of "Recursion". By showing parts of the puzzle from different times and places, Ballantyne provided just enough clues for the reader to speculate what's going on, but not so many as to be predictable. Another aspect that appealed to some was the paranoia that pervaded the lives of the characters. Somebody said the paranoia reminded him of some of Philip K. Dick's work. "This was a stronger novel than Dick's A Scanner Darkly. This was on part with Dick's better novels like Ubik," he said. Paranoia in "Recursion" is fueled by the fact that the human protagonists are dealing with AIs of superior intellect, the motivations of which they can't possibly fathom. They can only acknowledge, as they do eventually, that they'll never know if they are on the "good" or "bad" side, or whether the "good" and "bad" sides even exist. I thought that was a realistic view of the situation on behalf of the author. It was also one of the reasons I liked this book.

I thought Ballantyne's storytelling was much better than some authors we've read recently (Karl Schroeder and Cordwainer Smith). I did not find Herb boring. I thought the writing style was witty, even though some people in the group found it bland. I guess the puzzle aspect of the book is what really drew me in. It is present in most books I've recently read that I liked.

Here are a few more of my observations. The method of destroying the Enemy seemed clever, but at the same time too simple to be entirely credible. It would seem that something so obvious should have been foreseen by the super-powerful AI that was the Enemy. Another aspect of the book I was a little disappointed with was that the two subplots -- Eva's and Constantine's -- that chronologically precede Herb's storyline, in the end turn out to be dead ends... to an extent. Though it's true that they have some consequences in Herb's story, they are not integrated organically. While they reveal how the main players in this world, EA/Watcher and the Enemy, came into being, they don't actually play a part in, or provide clues for, conquering the Enemy. So while those storylines were interesting, I wish they had been integrated tighter. (But then I don't know if I had read the book carefully enough; maybe it provided critical clues and I just missed them; it's possible for that to happen since I read mostly while exercising on a stairmaster. :-))

Also, there is a small scientific innacuracy in the book: quantum entanglement does not enable faster-than-light communication. But it wasn't critical to the plot.

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