September 5, 2008

Book review: "MultiReal," by David Louis Edelman

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By David Louis Edelman
Pyr / ISBN: 978-1-59102-647-1

All hail the mighty science-fiction epic trilogy! Bow and tremble before the mighty science-fiction epic trilogy! Because Lord knows, if you're a SF fan, it's not like you're going to be able to get away from the mighty science-fiction epic trilogy; there have been so many successful ones now, after all, starting with Star Wars and making your way down the financial chain, that they've become almost more of a staple within this particular genre than even standalone books. And there are some great things that come with this, of course, but also some complications, for both reader and reviewer: for example, like that you need to read book one of such trilogies before books two and three will fully make sense, that books one and two will never seem fully complete unless you read book three as well, and that in general the trilogy will eventually be judged as one related unit when it's finally all published, and that any review of an individual book within this series is ultimately a bit futile.

MultiReal, by David Louis Edelman

That said, I was lucky enough earlier this summer to receive a copy of David Louis Edelman's MultiReal, book two of his massive science-fiction epic trilogy "Jump 225;" and I did definitely want to do a write-up of it here, because I did definitely enjoy it quite a bit, even more than volume one which I reviewed here at CCLaP last year. But then this leads to the exact problems I just mentioned: that the first book simply must be part of the consideration when judging this newest one, that the yet-unseen third volume will undoubtedly change what I originally thought of this middle one. It's a frustrating situation, but one I'll try to muddle through today; because make no mistake, this is a series that genre fans will definitely want to check out, and an individual chapter here that could very well garner a Hugo nomination next year (or at the least is no worse than any of the 2008 nominees, four of which I reviewed here at CCLaP earlier this year).

So let's start, then, with the fact that this is a massive "universe-building" style of project, one that like the "Star Trek universe" has its own insanely complicated history and entire glossary of made-up terms; those with an interest will want to see the 500-word recap of just this background alone that I wrote in my review for the first novel, 2006's Infoquake, or of course you can always stop by the official website for the series, containing a veritable Tolkienian amount of backstory and supplemental essays and complicated timelines and the like, the entire site actually programmed and maintained by Edelman himself. (In fact, for those who don't know, Edelman is still more of a professional web designer during the day than a full-time author, a situation he is trying to change these days through massive touring and public appearances; Infoquake was in fact his first novel, a surprise Campbell Award nominee and the true definition of a "sleeper hit.")

In a nutshell, the series is set on an Earth several thousand years in the future from our own times, one that in our near-future sees first the rise of artificial intelligence and then an apocalyptic war against these smart machines; it led essentially to a Second Dark Age, a period of hundreds of years where the only societies that managed to hold together were violent, extremely conservative and religious ones, so dedicated to avoiding another machine war that all knowledge of modern science basically disappeared for centuries. What brings it all back, then, in a period known as "The Re-Awakening," is basically the rediscovery of the concepts behind free-market capitalism, which in their far-future society they treat with the same reverence as we do the ideas of the ancient Greeks and Romans (The Enlightenment 2.0?); this is then specifically applied to a brand-new industry called bio/logics, the first time in a millennium that humanity has started building new computers and machines, designed this time not to replace natural human functions (which is what got them into such big trouble to begin with) but rather to enhance these functions, to help them along and fill in during weak spots. And that essentially breaks down into a three-tiered bio/logics industry, the whole thing an intriguing play on a democratic republic's checks and balances: there are the people who make the actual nanobots that run the system, billions of them that live inside your bloodstream at any moment; then the companies who develop all the software that run on these nanobots, hundreds of thousands of programs on the open market for everything from regulating heartbeat to changing the color of one's eyes; and then there is the governmental agency which maintains the objective medical databases concerning all this technology, and that publicly ensures all software on the market to be safe.

Last year's Infoquake, then, spent most of its time simply setting up this situation, told through the specific milieu of one of these thousands of entrepreneurial software companies, one owned by a Jason-Calacanis-type charming as-hole who goes by the name of Natch, along with all the underlings of his "fiefcorp," an organization which smartly combines the ideas of vested stock options with medieval apprenticeships. And then this finally gets us around to what volume two of the series is about; because what Natch ends up doing in book one is partnering with a mysterious world-renown scientist named Margaret Surina, a descendent of the original brilliant Sheldon Surina who invented bio/logics in the first place. Margaret, it turns out, has created her own brilliant new cutting-edge world-changing technology; it's called "MultiReal," and essentially (follow me here) lets a person use their bio/logics in order to shuffle through a million possible responses to a possible incoming situation, then choose just the specific set of motions or actions that would lead to the outcome you want. So, say, you're a football goalie, and someone's kicking the ball at you; you simply switch on your MultiReal (or, er, the software that's been designed to be used with MultiReal, that is), and you can suddenly dial through a million possible jumps and dives and other responses until you find the one where you save the day, and instruct your bio/logics to move your body in a split moment in that exact way that will let you catch the ball.

And in fact, if I can be a bit digressive for a moment, this is yet another proud tradition within mighty science-fiction epic trilogies, which Edelman is clearly guilty of as well; of the "science" part of the "science-fiction" being just a bit fuzzy, and with you basically having to squint at some of the details with half-closed eyes and not pay too much attention to them, else them suddenly making less and less rational sense. Because really, once you stop and really start thinking about it, there's no way a system like MultiReal could actually work in the way Edelman describes here; there'd be no way for the human brain to both rattle through a million possibilities in a microsecond and consciously choose one of those options and say to itself, "Yes, that's what I want to happen." Like other so-called "magic words" within the SF genre (Quantum! Singularity! Cyber Cyber Cyber!), it's best not to get caught up in the details of Edelman's bio/logics system, but rather do what he does and concentrate more on the overall story, more on the big ethical issues these sketchily-detailed breakthroughs would raise if they actually existed.

Because when it comes to all that, I'm happy to report that MultiReal is most decidedly a better-written novel than Infoquake, just as I prayed it would be in my original review; Edelman has for sure gotten better at dialogue, at creating arresting mental images, and in general on most of the building-block issues concerning literature that I most complained about last year with his first novel. And in fact, it's becoming clear that it's the painting of indelible visual images that Edelman naturally excels at, more than any other aspect of contemporary writing; I have to admit, for example, that his chapter describing the quasi-religious compound Andra Pradesh simply took my breath away at points, especially when describing the mile-high indoor atrium and glass elevator that zoomed swiftly into the loving hands of a giant concrete Sheldon Surina at the top, carved in bas-relief on the temple's ceiling. Man, talk about an image that will stick in your head for awhile.

There are still problems with this book, for sure; for one, like last time most of the characters are still coming off as too unlikable, which in turn makes the reader not care that much about their fates, which in turn makes the entire storyline a weaker one than it should be. And also, I have to admit, I wish that the dialogue on display here was even better than it currently is, although admittedly it's better than before, and in fact some people will undoubtedly argue with me over its quality in the first place; or to put it another way, I found a lot of the dialogue here on the same level as, say, a random episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which I consider a slight insult while others would consider a slight compliment. (And of course will make some of you indignantly sit up a little straighter, frown, and say to your computer monitor, "What the f-ck is wrong with Buffy, Pettus?" Another time, dear reader, another time.) All in all, though, I have a lot more good things to say about MultiReal than critical, and in general found it a pleasant improvement over the first book and a real treat as a genre fan to read. Undoubtedly my views will change once again when the final volume of this trilogy is out next year, which is mostly why I've been putting off a big discussion of the series' overall plot arc; until that day, though, I can solidly recommend that all SF fans get caught up with this series, and get used to a new voice in the genre who I hope will be around for a long time.

Out of 10:
Story: 9.2
Characters: 8.1
Style: 8.2
Overall: 8.8

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

Filed by Jason Pettus at 3:05 PM, September 5, 2008. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |