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Tony Ballantyne
Tor, 345 pages

Tony Ballantyne
Tony Ballantyne is a teacher, teaching IT to 11-18 year olds. Recursion is his first novel.

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A review by Rich Horton

Tony Ballantyne is an English author who has been doing some interesting work at shorter lengths in the last few years, mostly in Interzone. Recursion is his first novel. It takes a couple of ideas he touched on in earlier stories, but recasts them entirely.

Recursion is a Space Opera (of sorts) by a recent British author. So we know one thing for sure -- it's told on multiple time tracks! (See the novels of Iain M. Banks, Ken MacLeod, and Alastair Reynolds for further examples.) This book opens with Herb, a spoiled rich kid from the 23rd Century, planting an illegal Von Neumann Machine (VNM) on an unspoiled planet, hoping to turn it into a private resort. Unfortunately, something goes wrong, and he ends up with the VNM version of nanotech's "grey goo" -- that is, the VNMs keep replicating and eat up the whole planet. Soon Herb is arrested by an representative of the Environmental Agency, and he is offered a choice -- spend the next n years slaving away near Pluto, or help the EA in the battle against the Enemy Domain, which seems to be runaway AIs which have taken over much of the universe, and are encroaching on human space.

Meanwhile -- well, not really "meanwhile" -- a young woman named Eva Rye puts into action a desperate attempt at suicide. She is hoping to elude the attentions of the mid-21st Century nanny state in which she lives, and her elaborate plot really ought to work, but instead she is revived and sent to a mental institution, where she meets a few other suicidal youngsters. Eva is convinced that she (and everyone else) are constantly monitored by a spontaneously evolved AI called the Watcher. Eva also talks to her dead brother -- though his true nature doesn't become clear for some time.

Finally -- again, not really "finally" -- a man named Constantine, in the early 22nd Century, comes to the Australian arcology called Stonebreak on a mysterious mission. It seems Stonebreak is a very early VNM-based project. It soon becomes clear that Stonebreak may be in trouble. But other strange things are going on -- Constantine has several artificial personalities in his head, advising and sometimes taking control. And every so often he thinks he sees gaps in the sky. And a mysterious woman accosts him, accusing him of being a "ghost" -- a man allowed by his corporation's AIs to evade notice. And what is the secret Constantine has brought home from the VNM project on Mars?

All these threads continue fairly independently until right at the end, though certain coincidences of names tease us a bit. What's really going on is obscure for much of the novel, which is a bit of a shame as we don't really engage with the central issues as early as we might. These issues are, basically, "Should we cede decision making to super intelligent AIs?", and, if so, "How can we trust them?" Ballantyne does offer interesting discussion by the end, and some interesting and ambiguous answers. The general action of each thread holds the interest, as Herb and the EA agent battle the enemy AI, Eva and friends try to escape the Watcher, and Constantine tries to understand where and what he is and who wants the information he carries. At times I was put off a bit by the essentially magical nature of VNMs as portrayed -- mostly they are acceptable as the story's "one impossible idea" but I rather doubt that a thermodynamic analysis of the action in the Herb thread (at least) would hold up.

But other ideas are intriguing -- the couple of examples of multiple personality, the general treatment of AIs, Constantine's true nature.

Recursion may be a bit too long -- a bit stuffed with busy work that doesn't really lead to anything, but on the whole it's a promising first novel, not a complete success, but an interesting work.

Copyright © 2004 Rich Horton

Rich Horton is an eclectic reader in and out of the SF and fantasy genres. He's been reading SF since before the Golden Age (that is, since before he was 13). Born in Naperville, IL, he lives and works (as a Software Engineer for the proverbial Major Aerospace Company) in St. Louis area and is a regular contributor to Tangent. Stop by his website at

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