Sunday, July 22, 2007


Tony Ballantyne's Capacity has one of the best sci-fi prologues I have ever read. I bought the book solely because the first few pages read like an introductory pamphlet for people whose personality has recently been copied into processing space, a virtual reality where people from the atomic world are so accurately simulated that they garner human rights of their own as Personality Constructs. The pamphlet explains all this and more, and thus also serves as a perfect introduction for the reader, easing you into the storyline even if you do as I did and skip the first novel of the trilogy. (The first book, Recursion, wasn't available in the store so I just picked this one up.) The actual story kicks off with a cursory introduction of the main character Helen, and then her death. Suddenly the story twists around in a loop, apparently into the past, to describe a minutely different version of reality where Helen is alive, until she proceeds to meet her fate in a slightly different turn of events. This loop reiterates a few times, showing still other variations, until Judy, a kimono-clad mysterious agent of Social Care, appears out of nowhere and saves Helen.

Ballantyne's prose tickles your imagination and challenges your intellect. His vision of the future is exotic almost to the point of being completely alien, and many of his descriptions are dreamlike, almost nightmarish. There is a pervasive mood of hopelessness and inevitability, and the underlying theme seems to be that the human race cannot possibly grasp the sheer enormity of life's most important questions. The book throws a barrage of existential conundrums at the reader. The first one is on the cover: If you are copied, who is the real you? The rest are presented in dialogue and plot and elaborated upon from almost every possible angle. What does it mean to exist? Thinking? What if there are sentient robots? Identity? What if you can be copied? Reproduction? What if there are reproducing machines? The seemingly endless philosophising would get tiresome if it weren't for Ballantyne's careful pacing.

Thankfully, the book is not all about Helen and Judy's travels through Existentialism 101. Helen's story interweaves with the story of Justinian, an expert on Personality Construct psychology who has been brought to a recently colonized planet to investigate the suicides of several artificial intelligences. His dialogue with the AIs and his accompanying robot Leslie is pure genius. Sure, it contributes to shedding light on some of the existential questions raised by the parallel storyline, but it's not nearly as blatant. It lends heart to the story, and some feeling of purpose, as Justinian is the most sympathetic character in the book.

My final impression of the book was that there was no actual story, because every plot element and every piece of dialogue seemed only to present new permutations of existence and thereby elaborate upon questions of its definition, cause, effects and limits. However, a book without a story is definitely not a bad thing, especially when it's this well-written. Suffice to say that I went back and bought the other two books in the trilogy.

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