by Tony Ballantyne
Review by John Berlyne
Tor Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 1405041390
Date: 16 July, 2004 List Price £12.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK /
British writer Tony Ballantyne has already chalked up some notable successes in the short fiction market and has now been picked up by Tor UK, Macmillan's new(ish) genre imprint that is currently developing an impressive stable of new writers. It is notable that Tor UK and Macmillan publish many of the writers associated with the oft bandied-around term The New Weird -- China Mieville, Jeff Vandermeer, Jeff Ford, K.J. Bishop -- and the admirable editorial penchant for this kind of material has been drawn now to Ballantyne for reasons which become apparent on reading Recursion, for there is an imaginative energy in the this novel that allows it to explore some interesting SF ideas.
In the far future, Herb, a self-seeking and lazy rich kid, decides to set a bunch of self-replicating machines (Von Neumann machines or VNMs) loose on a barren planet, his intention for them to build and entire city it to his own design. Unfortunately his design for the machines is flawed and the planet is transformed into nothing more than an overrun breeding ground. A mysterious stranger appears on Herb's ship, claiming to be from the Environmental Agency and tells Herb that he's been caught doing a very bad thing -- if he doesn't now do exactly as he's told, he'll be put away for a very long time. Unfortunately for Herb, the stranger then tells him that he has to help save the universe.
In another timeline, Eva, a young, unhappy woman attempts to kill herself, only to be prevented by the ultimate "nanny state". She finds herself deposited in a mental asylum, apparently for her own good and there she hooks up with a group of lunatics who might not actually be as paranoid as they appear.
In a third timeline, Constantine Storey thinks he's coming to the end of an important and highly secret mission. After many months of travel, he finds himself in the city of Stonebreak -- a weird, tiered place -- and there it dawns on him and the four personalities he carries in his head -- that all is not as it seems.
This conventional three strand narrative tells a provocative story about the emergence of artificial intelligence, arguing its various the benefits and pitfalls, its impact on human destiny and the issues of control that might arise we it to become an everyday reality -- do we control it, or does it control us? Certainly Ballantyne shows that these are ideas worthy of fictional exploration and in doing so marks himself as someone to watch. He creates interesting characters and handles dialogue and situation well enough -- the story of the lengths Eva must go to in trying to outwit an Orwellian state is particularly engaging - but as the three stories mesh together, the big picture tends to lose its focus and thrust and the overall impression is that this is a novel that is thematically successful, but this success only comes at the cost of the story. Ultimately Recursion lacks the drama to make it an exciting read.