July 26, 2007

Book review: "Infoquake," by David Louis Edelman

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Infoquake
By David Louis Edelman
Pyr / ISBN: 978-1-59102-442-2

Regular readers of the CCLaP website know that I am a fan of science-fiction; and when it comes to what I like most about the genre, I have to admit that for me it mostly boils down to the concepts, to the grand ideas on display versus the author's writing style or other technical issues. And this of course is something else that regular readers already know, that I see the actual mechanics of writing (grammar, style, plot, etc) as fairly pedestrian topics, the least important part of what makes a writer good or not; since in my opinion it's the one thing about writing that literally anyone can master given enough practice and/or education, versus things like grand concepts and compelling characters that a person is either born with an ability to conjure or not.

Infoquake, by David Louis Edelman

It's something to keep in mind while reading through Infoquake, the first novel by Washington-DC web developer David Louis Edelman, which last year became not only a surprise sleeper hit but also a surprise Campbell Award nominee; because make no mistake, some of the ideas Edelman bandies about here are insanely great enough to make your head pop right off your neck, even as he displays only a basic mastery at this point over the actual mechanics of writing a novel, a fact that will drive heavy readers of so-called "literary fiction" a little crazy. It is ultimately a very good example of something I've said here before about genre work, which is what makes genre work both loved and reviled by most; that it delivers in spades everything a lover of science-fiction wants in a great science-fiction novel, but simply never transcends that and into the world of general interest, like the absolute cream of the crop of genre work does. It's a great novel to be sure, an infinitely smart page-turner that will have your brain spinning for days afterwards; but it's obvious that Edelman is still trying to find his mature voice as a writer, something that lovers of great books need to be warned of before diving in.

In fact, because of Infoquake being so concept-heavy, I suppose that's where we should start when it comes to a review of it; I'll warn you now, today's essay is going to be longer and more exposition-heavy than normal, because of the novel itself being the same...

--First off, like many other sci-fi projects, Infoquake's world is one that has survived an apocalyptic war between humans and intelligent machines -- the 'Autonomous Revolt' as it's known in Edelman's universe, caused (he implies) by the growing obsession of primitive humanity (i.e. us) over building "smart machines" that replace natural human functions rather than enhance them. (Think of how spell-check software these days is rapidly replacing our need to know how to spell; now multiply the ramifications of that by ten thousand and you start seeing what Edelman's getting at.) In fact, this is a major theme throughout the entire novel, of the difference between technology that makes humans lazier and lazier, and technology that simply optimizes natural human endeavors, so is something to pay close attention to whenever mentioned.

--This war was so bad, in fact, that it decimated over a billion humans, and caused the destruction of most of the world's national governments. As a result, humanity enters a so-called "Second Dark Age," in which the only parts of the planet to maintain law and order are the ones run by ultra-right-wing religious organizations, who of course forbid the teaching of science, robotics, computers, or any other subject having even remotely to do with the Autonomous Revolt.

--After several hundred years of this, though, finally a man named Sheldon Surina steps up and ushers in what's known as The Reawakening, by inventing both a business system and life philosophy called Bio/logics, based on the mostly forgotten precepts of the now-antique Dot Com years; a way of introducing machine-aided technology back to humanity, that is, but this time through the checks and balances of a three-pronged free-market system (including one wing that creates microscopic "nanobots" that help regulate the human body, one wing that creates the software that runs these nanobots, and a third organization that provides the unbiased medical information off which all software and hardware is based). As mentioned, the difference here is that the machines are not being created to replace various human functions but rather to enhance them; from regulating a bad heart to changing one's eye color, and every biological function in between.

--In turn, The Reawakening brings a virtual end to organized religion, with groups called "creeds" popping up to take their place -- groups that are spiritually dedicated to the various ideals behind rational thought (like a creed dedicated to honest discourse, a creed dedicated to creative thought, etc), pretty much the French Revolution's wet dream for anyone familiar with that era of history. Such a free-market system becomes so successful, in fact, that it brings a worldwide stability to the planet that humanity hasn't seen for half a millennium, threatening to bring a permanent end as well to the sad remaining remnants of the world's former national governments. In desperation, these groups basically disband and start a global central government instead, headquartered in Australia and basically a direct competitor to the various creeds and private city-states that now exist, all of them maintaining their own small armies mostly for defensive purposes (which yes, even includes the spiritual groups).

--Oh, and did I mention that the line between physical reality and virtual reality has been erased in the far future as well? Thank the nanobots for that, which can now not only provide real-time video and audio from any location on Earth, directly pumped right into one's eyes and ears, but indeed a perfect replication of all five senses, not to mention a manipulation of the people actually there at that physical space, so that your holographic representation there seems more "real" to them too. Combine this with the maglev bullet trains that now crisscross the planet (which for example can get a person from New York to LA in a couple of hours), plus honest-to-God teleportation (which is barely used by the general public because of its prohibitive cost, a nice touch by Edelman as to the practical limitations of high technology), and you basically have a world where any human can be in any location on the planet at any time they want, for no more relative cost than a subway ticket or an hour at an internet cafe.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, brings us to the first page of the actual novel! WHEW! Hopefully you're starting to see what I mean now, when I say how concept-heavy Infoquake actually is; that like many fantastical books, it is the universe that Edelman has created that is of equal importance as the story itself that takes place there. And indeed, this is yet something else that many sci-fi fans love about sci-fi, is the vast and consistent environment that is created for these stories to reside; it's what makes Trekkies Trekkies, what keeps Star Wars fans endlessly arguing over what is "canon" material versus "non-canon." And in this case, Edelman creates a whopper of a universe for his characters to inhabit, one filled with an entire glossary of minor figures and obscure historical events, just begging for a little fan-fiction to fill the gaps*; and this is to say nothing of the story itself, which basically centers on the great granddaughter of Surina, who is about to release a stunning new technology of her own, as well as the various characters in all the ancillary industries that surround this technology, who all stand to either gain or lose profoundly from it. It is a world where free-market capitalism has taken on the kind of revered Classicism that we in current times assign to the ancient Greeks; a place where people no longer argue over what type of government is best, but rather whether governments even need to exist anymore.

But like I said, Infoquake has some glaring technical problems too, a fact that doesn't prevent me in particular from being a big fan but definitely will prevent some of you from being so. For example, like many of these "Grand Idea" literary projects, Infoquake can make one suffer from Slow Death By Exposition if you're one of those people who get peeved by such a thing; that approximately half of the entire novel comes off as an extended encyclopedia entry instead of a narrative story, which sadly is a hallmark of a whole lot of genre projects. Also, Edelman's personal writing style leaves a lot to be desired, with many of his characters coming off as a lot more pissy and whiny than I think he meant for them to be, and with terms for these future concepts that sometimes devolve into the hacky attitude one saw in a lot of '90s sci-fi as well, whereby adding "cyber" to the beginning of any word was suddenly supposed to make it hip and edgy. (I mean, seriously, Edelman, "SeeNaRee?" Seriously?)

Now like I said, as an avowed sci-fi fan such things are of the least actual importance to me, when it comes to determining whether or not I like a particular book; but I also acknowledge that it's the very thing that turns a lot of people off of sci-fi altogether, just as these same elements turn me off of the various genres I am not a natural fan of (like romance, crime thrillers, legal dramas and more). Thankfully for all of us, Edelman's going to be getting a lot more chances to improve over the coming years -- turns out that Infoquake is merely part 1 of a larger trilogy known as "Jump 225," and its surprise success has already convinced his publisher (the small press Pyr, an imprint of Prometheus Books) to commit to the other two volumes, MultiReal and Geosynchron, where I have no doubt that his personal style and other technical skills will be improving on a daily basis. But it's unfortunately for the reasons cited that I need to issue a big caveat with today's recommendation; that Infoquake is miles away from being a breakthrough or crossover novel, and will in fact mostly appeal only to those who are already diehard science-fiction fans.

That said, if you are a sci-fi fan, I wholeheartedly recommend that you pick up a copy right away, if for no other reason than to prepare yourself for what will undoubtedly be the bigger and grander stories to come. And Mr. Edelman, if you happen to come across this review -- dude, seriously, more about the Unconnectibles, please! I will be severely disappointed if part of the next novel doesn't take place among the Islanders or Pharisees; it's yet one more area of this complex universe that I'm highly looking forward to learning more about.

Out of 10:
Story: 9.5
Characters: 7.0
Style: 4.8
Overall: 6.8, or 9.3 for science-fiction fans

*Oh, and speaking of complex backstories and fan-fiction projects, no review of Infoquake is complete without special mention of the absolutely astounding support website Edelman has created for it; not "astounding" as in it's flashy or trendy or contains a bunch of streaming animations that ultimately amount to nothing (yeah, Viking, I'm talking to you), but "astounding" as in the amount of background information Edelman provides about the "Jump 225" universe, including not only a full reprinting of the paper book's appendices but also almost 10,000 words of backstory not found in the book at all. Imagine if JRR Tolkien had had access to a personal website while writing Lord of the Rings, where he was able to publish his background notes in real time instead of years after his death; that should give you an idea of what the Infoquake support site is like, a project that's just begging for some smart fan-fiction to fill in the narrative gaps. So how about it, Edelman? You claim to be a big fan of the Web 2.0; how about open-sourcing the background universe of Jump 225, and allowing others to write and publish their own stories that take place in it? We nerdy slashfic Sigh fans anxiously await your answer!

Read even more about Infoquake: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari

Filed by Jason Pettus at 4:06 PM, July 26, 2007. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |