Friday 21 October 2011

Reality 36, by Guy Haley - reviewed by Stephen Theaker

In 2067 the Greenlandic ice sheet tipped, leading to calamitous environmental and social change; 2104 saw the creation of class five artificial intelligences, most of whom promptly went insane; by 2129, the year of this novel’s events, the population of Earth has fallen to five billion. In this novel Otto Klein, a retired cyborg soldier with a dodgy shoulder, and Richards, his friend and colleague, a class five AI with an odd sense of humour, investigate the many deaths of Zhang Qifang, a leading sentient rights campaigner. The investigation leads to Reality 36, one of a series of virtual worlds from which humans were expelled back in 2114, when their AI inhabitants were granted full rights. Harvesting orcs for XP is a lot less fun when it sees you tried in The Hague for genocide! A parallel thread sees Qifang’s assistant Veronique Valdaire following her own leads on Qifang’s deaths, illegally entering Reality 36 while plugged into an amateur life-support system. There she meets its defenders, Sir Jagadith Veyadeep and his talking steed Tarquinius. Someone is using Reality 36 to set themselves up as a god, and the knight is on a quest to bring them down.

The future of this novel feels a bit old-fashioned in some ways (especially when Richards is swimming around in cyberspace), but it's not as if ecological disaster and artificial intelligence seem less likely to affect our world than they did at the height of cyberpunk. Why not exploit that setting when, as this book shows, there are still good stories to be told in it? Guy Haley - for whom I must admit a certain affection, having subscribed to SFX for many years after it began - has created a world rich with potential stories, and characters with powerful reasons to get involved in anything that’s happening, and enough skills to survive, just about, the worst the world can throw at them. The action sequences are exciting, the mysteries intriguing, the characters people whose conversations I enjoy, people I’d like to read more about. Which is fortunate, since I won’t know how the story ends unless I do. Approaching the last 10% of the book, one realises with a sinking feeling (as with The Damned Busters, from the same publisher) that quite a bit of the plot is unlikely to be resolved by the end, and so it proves. Would Star Wars have been a better film had it finished halfway through the assault on the Death Star? Probably not, but it would have been pretty good wherever it ended, and I’d say the same about Reality 36.

Reality 36, by Guy Haley. Angry Robot, ebook, 5127ll.

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