Pyr, 2006, 421 pages, US$15.00 tpb, ISBN 1-591-02442-0
As computer graphics are becoming increasingly photo-realistic, an unexpected phenomenon has dogged ambitious attempts to faithfully re-create humans: Viewers of animation movies such as FINAL FANTASY: THE SPIRIT WITHIN and THE POLAR EXPRESS have reported unease at seeing the “creepy” human characters. Here, artistry meets psychology as humans seem to have strong built-in distaste for creatures that are almost, but not quite human-like: this “uncanny valley” is an evolutionary protection mechanism against mutations that is now forcing computer animators to either favour caricature (like in THE INCREDIBLES) or even longer R&D development efforts (such as James Cameron’s long-awaited “Avatar” project). In approximating reality, there is a point where almost perfect is worse than rougher approximations.
This relates to David Louis Edelman’s Infoquake insofar as, during the book, I started thinking about the difference between good and great novels, and how a good novel that’s almost great will appear worse than it is. Call it the uncanny valley of quasi-greatness, where reviewers spend way too much time thinking about small niggling details.
There is little doubt that Infoquake is a good and solid SF debut that should put Edelman in consideration for the Dick and Campbell awards. The opening segment is a furious retelling of the dot-com boom as applied to biotechnology: Our characters are members of a plucky start-up trying to fend their way through a hyper-competitive jungle, and their only advantage seems to be a leader without any ethical restraint. Edelman has obviously paid attention during his own dot-com experience, and the result is a science-fiction novel that has fully internalized the lessons of the past decade.
Another significant achievement is in presenting a protagonist, Natch, that is as fascinating as he’s loathsome. Natch (we come to learn) is a type A+ personality, a born competitor uniquely suited to fight in the cut-throat business world. In a stroke of savvy structure, the first section of Infoquake chooses to show him through the eyes of his employees, allowing us to feel his impact well before we can understand what made him so.
Fluent in the languages of business and information technology, Infoquake is a ride through a fresh future, a strong debut from a promising writer, and a proud representative of Pyr’s early line-up. It’s worth a look.
But as I was reading the novel, I kept thinking about how some elements of the story kept interfering with other ones. Through the novel takes place hundreds of years in the future in a world radically re-set to accommodate strange new social structures, it struck me that many of the most interesting things about Infoquake would have been more powerful had they occurred in a universe more closely tied to ours. While Edelman’s meticulously-described future history is original and intriguing, Infoquake may have found greater resonance as a pre-Singularity middle-future thriller. Setting the story in a far future with unusual new political forces (some of them unrealistically “all-powerful and obeyed”) takes away the impact of the novel and places it closer to fantasy. I read SF in large part for commentary on reality: the far-future setting fudged a number of promising resonances, especially given the spot-on first section.
But this is the first volume of a series (explicitly so, as the cover specifies “Volume I of the Jump 225 Trilogy”), and trying to figure out my issues with this novel has only reminded me why I don’t like to read first volumes without having the rest of the series on-hand: Infoquake‘s deep world-building (partially explained in a series of appendices) contains enough philosophical/spiritual hooks to suggest that we haven’t seen anything yet. I have the suspicion that Edelman has kept a number of cards up his sleeves, and that many of the above objections are likely to be answered or nullified in the next instalment. Edelman may very well take his series in a specific direction where he’ll exploit or subvert many of the certitudes first introduced in Infoquake. As it is, the novel is never too far away from tongue-in-cheek irony: I’m wary of taking it too seriously.
So you can attribute the above hesitations to “incomplete information: not enough data” and assume that I’m on-board for the rest of the trilogy. Natch may be an amoral bastard, but he’s a fascinating one. I can’t wait to see if Jara will make it out of his orbit of influence without too much damage. Certainly, this is one area of the novel where the uncanny valley of criticism doesn’t apply: Good characters, interesting story and a promising future. Not many novels make it this far up: let’s avoid dwelling on the idea that this is an almost great SF novel and focus on the fact that it’s a very good one.