Tuesday, June 17, 2008

John Meaney: To Hold Infinity

John Meaney's To Hold Infinity was a very pleasant surprise. I received it as a review copy, since Anders Monsen, editor of the LFS' Prometheus, doesn't have time to read everything that arrives, so I didn't have any particular expectations. It turns out to be a wonderful book. It reminded me of the wonder of reading Neuromancer for the first time--a vivid depiction of a new way of looking at the world. In this case, Meaney manages to show us enhanced humans (Luculenti) interacting with the unenhanced normals on Fulgor as well as the shadowy Pilots with their access to mu-space, and gives a feel for what the conversation feels like from each viewpoint. It's a wondrous achievement.

The story covers the investigation of Rafael Garcia de la Vega, a Luculentus who has been killing and absorbing the minds and consciousnesses of other Luculenti. We know from the outset that de la Vega did it, but Meaney still manages to make the pursuit riveting. And along the way, we get to see how the enhanced Luculenti entertain one another and get glimpses of how it affects their lives.

Meaney gives an inside view of the thought process of Luculenti in conversation with the unenhanced, while simultaneously giving an impression that the Pilots are as far out of reach. A Luculentus would be having an ordinary real-time conversation, while simultaneously managing web searches on the background of an unexepected guest, negotiating terms of a business deal, and enjoying the nuances of an exquisiste meal. At times, we see Luculenti engaging in multi-layer conversations in which three or four people talk out loud while sharing private jokes with some of those present, accompanying their comments with visual, olfactory, and emotional side-notes to underscore their points. Meaney has to invent a new typography and layout in order to make this all flow smoothly and let you feel it from the inside, but he carries it off very well.

The story follows several different threads, each with its own pace and interacting characters. In the main thread we are treated to a lavish party presented by a top Luculenta for a mixed group of Luculenti and the unenhanced. The entertainment has so many interwoven elements that all the audience members, including the reader, are simultaneously impressed with what they perceive of the whole presentation. In one sub-thread, a recently up-raised Luculentus is in hiding off-the-grid while his new formed talents are trying to emerge without the usual multi-layer interactions to feed their need for stimulation.

A side-note for my security-minded friends looking forward to their own enhancement: the usual rules of story telling require that the enhancing mindware have a crucial security flaw that allows de la Vega to take control of someone else's software. Without this trope, there wouldn't be much of a story, but it's a vivid depiction of why we'd want to design the platform for our thoughts very carefully. Not everyone who uses the system will have the ability or inclination to determine whether the substrate is secure, but they'll all be reliant on its properties.

The book is 500 pages long, but it definitely held my attention. I was up for a couple hours past my usual bedtime for nearly a week while reading it. Oh--even though it was sent to the LFS as a review copy, I didn't find anything particularly of libertarian interest in it. There is a government, but its role is minor without being invisible. The characters assume the government will prosecute crimes, but this one is obscure enough that they do their own investigation.

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