Monday, 22 July 2013

A dense but disappointing conclusion to the Spin Series in Ghost Spin

From The Week of July 15th, 2013

For centuries, philosophers and thinkers have attempted to arrive at a coherent, all-encompassing answer to the question of what it means to be human. Their avenues of thought, though legion, have focused on the spiritual, the dutiful, the attitudinal, even the cognitive. And in this, they have missed the most critical path, the technological. After all, the question takes on a whole new universe of significance when we consider that, soon, humans won't even be exclusively flesh and blood, that they will extend their lives by using artificially grown replacement organs, that they will adapt themselves to life under Earth's oceans and in the skies of other worlds. We are on the brink of revolutions in cybernetic enhancement, genetic engineering and quantum computing that will eventually collapse the nation state and end capitalism as we know it. Defining humanity will become meaningless because to define it will be to define life in all its intelligent forms. This Chris Moriarty explores in the concluding work to her Spin Trilogy.

It is the 25th century and humanity, under the semi-authoritarian aegis of the United Nations, has taken to the stars. Utilizing the half-understood technologies made possible by breakthroughs in the quantum universe, artificial intelligences have been created to operate infrastructure and spacecraft, biomechanical wirejobs have been fused into the human brain and nervous system to create cognitive and physical enhancements, and exotic matter has been mined and deployed to create faster-than-light relays through which humans can explore the galaxy. This ought to be a utopia, a world beyond strife and discord. And yet, political corruption, wage slavery and widespread distrust of humans for the intelligent machines upon which they rely has forged a fractured civilization, one in which deep disparities in income equality and opportunity have lead to an unimaginable gap in the standard of living between elites on earth and colonials elsewhere.

Into this toxic stew of exploitation floats Catherine Li. A veteran of the UN's military arm, she has paid her dues and, thanks to Cohen, the oldest AI in human space, she has forged some kind of life. Sure, there is still the question of her past war-crimes, for which some would hang her, but her enduring relationship with Cohen keeps her largely safe from their manipulations. Until, one day, she learns that Cohen is gone, the victim of someone else's murderous intentions or his own suicidal instincts it's hard to say. But armed with a spun-off remnant of his personality, she intends to get to the bottom of why she's lost the only man she's ever loved. In doing so, she will come to understand the universe, and humanity's future in it, IN WAYS both frightening and fearsome.

A long, meandering conclusion to Ms. Moriarty's engaging, thoughtful, and confronting trilogy, Ghost Spin is equal parts success and failure. Taking up the structure of whodoneit crime fiction that worked so well in the trilogy's excellent first volume, it is essentially a 400-page rumination on the spectacular possibilities and perilous pitfalls of technologies sure to be churned out by the quantum revolution. Atop this, Ms. Moriarty has welded a plot framework that unites an updated version of the sea-pirate story with a mysterious murder-suicide that is entertaining without managing to be engrossing. For the plot here feels secondary, little more than a delivery system for the payload that is the author's philosophical ruminations on humanity's habits and foibles.

Catherine Li, the trilogy's protagonist, has always been a deliberate cipher. Having had her memories scrubbed as a consequence of the technological constraints of her job as a soldier for the UN, she is a benumbed and largely empty vessel animated by instinct and desire. These were deliberate choices on Ms. Moriarty's part and they worked when Li had a mission to complete and a status quo to overturn. Here, though, Li, once a badass of the first order, has been reduced to a woman desperate to find the only man who she invited inside her head, to fill up those empty spaces left blank by her past. And though the author couches this eager search in posthuman terms -- the man as artificial intelligence and Li herself as a copy of a copy --, this does not obfuscate the basic framework of a very old, very tired story.

But while Ms. Moriarty may have overexposed her characters and their deeds, few authors of popular fiction can speak with such eloquence about the nature of existence. In Spin State, she revealed a remarkable talent for terrifying technologies that ate away at what humans hold most dear, identity. Here, she takes up this most sacred virtue and smashes it upon the altar of science. The fragments that result are the fragments of her tales and in this she is, at least for this writer, a must-buy. But the Spin Universe has reached its end, at least with these characters. New ground must be sought out and mined for value.

Problematic, but no less thoughtful or imaginative for that... (3/5 Stars)

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