Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Lit Geek
  Book Reviews by James Maxey
October 2010

Zendegi by Greg Evan

By now, you might think that science fiction had so thoroughly explored the ideas of virtual reality and artificial intelligence that there would be little new to say. Greg Egan brilliantly manages to find unexplored, fertile ground for these concepts in his novel Zendegi, by setting the novel in near future Iran. More importantly, for me, he creates a very sensible economic groundwork for why we might start teaching computers to emulate human minds. A lot of science fiction falls apart once you ask "How is anyone going to make money from this idea?" Here, the logical leaps make good business sense as well as interesting scientific speculation.

The novel is divided into two parts. In part one, we meet journalist Martin Seymour, freshly divorced, going to Iran to cover recent political turmoil. He arrives just as one of the mullahs who run the nation is captured on cell phone video in a limousine with a transvestite prostitute. The people rise up, rallying behind a moderate politician; the mullahs crack down, and the moderate politician is assassinated. But efforts of the mullahs to control the media and cell phones are thwarted by smaller, slower homemade networks that allow people throughout the nation to stay in contact. The mullahs fall and freedom comes to Iran.

While Martin is in the center of this turmoil, Iranian refugee Nasim Golestani is growing up in the US, a student working on neural networks that will mimic the human mind. She meets an eccentric billionaire who tries to bribe her into uploading his brain into one of her networks. She refuses on ethical grounds, but also explains why the technology will never work that way. Shortly after, Nasim learns of the Iranian revolution, and decides its time to return to her homeland and be part of the rebuilding.

Fast forward fifteen years. Nasim is now a programmer for Zendegi, a virtual world that hosts hundreds of game scenarios. But, Zendegi is falling behind in market share compared to Japanese and Indian competitors. Seeking a competitive edge, Nasim returns to her research in mapping human brain networks. Other VR systems use motion capture to simulate the motions of famous athletes. Nasim goes a step further and maps out the thought patterns of the world's most famous soccer player as he plays virtual soccer inside an MRI. The result is an artificial soccer player who mimics the real one to an uncanny degree.

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The fifteen years have also been good for Martin. He's married a woman he met during the revolution and now has a young son, Javeed. He's very happy in his life . . . until he's in a car accident that kills his wife. Then, while he's recuperating, x-rays reveal that Martin has incurable liver cancer. Martin starts thinking about how his son will grow up without his guidance, and, since Nasim was a relative of his wife, he goes to her with a proposal: He wants her to map his brain to create a simulacrum that will possess his morals. His son can continue to visit inside Zendegi, since Martin and Javeed already spend many hours a week inside the game anyway. This virtual Martin won't be Martin, but it will be a passable stand-in for his moral guidance. Or . . . so they hope.

The book is packed with genuine drama and deeply explored inner lives of characters. Virtual realities already exist thanks to masterful writers like Egan; I promise you will come to care for Martin and Javeed as real people.

There's one more important point to make about Zendegi: In all the novels I've reviewed to date, I don't think I've ever read one that didn't have a villain. This novel isn't built out of conflict with some evil person or thing. It's built out of tensions that everyone encounters like trying to raise your son, or maintain friendships with flawed people, or adjusting your dreams as your life is buffeted by events beyond your power.

This is a must read book for any fan of thoughtful fiction.

Ex-Heroes by Peter Clines

I've reviewed a lot of superhero novels. And, I've reviewed a lot of zombie novels. So, how could I resist Ex-Heroes, a novel of superheroes battling zombies?

Peter Clines is obviously a fan of both genres, and his melding of the two ideas comes across as a labor of love. In some ways, the two genres are an absolutely perfect mesh. Most superhero novels have, at their core, a message of hope. The superhero almost always rises as a symbol of mankind at its best. Zombie novels, on the other hand, are driven by a predominant mood of despair. The zombie disease is always spread by mingling bodily fluids -- which is how all human deaths get their start, if you think about it. Zombies are the personification of inevitable death. So, when superheroes and zombies meet, which idea will prove most enduring? Hope or despair?

Obviously, I won't reveal the ending. But I will promise you that getting to that ending will be one superbly choreographed extravaganza. Nearly all of earth has fallen to the zombie plague, and a few thousand humans have taken refuge in Paramount Studios in Hollywood. Now called the Mount, the studio's high walls and gates allow the half dozen superheroes still operating to turn the place into a fortress from which they can defend the last remnants of mankind. Or, are they the last remnants? A street gang known as the Seventeens is still operating out in the fallen city, scavenging in the ruins and attacking people from the Mount when they venture out to search for supplies. Somehow, the Seventeens are ignored by zombies; in fact, as the novel unfolds, we discover that they somehow control the zombies, including zombie superheroes, who retain their powers even in death.

Tensions build as the humans in the Mount begin to doubt that the superheroes are going to be able to protect them from the Seventeens. Indeed, the heroes may even be the reason that the Seventeens are waging war against the Mount, as they have a long time grudge against the superhero known as Gorgon.

The book builds to a multi-chapter battle between living heroes, superpowered zombies, and undead hordes by the tens of thousands. Peter Cline brings each scene to life with exactly the right blend of action, humor, and existential horror.

The only part of the book that didn't work well for me were the flashback chapters. Each of the heroes are given a chapter where they tell their back story in first person. These work well for the plot, filling in gaps that explain the present reality. But a major problem with the first person narrations is that most of the narrators sound pretty much the same. Rather than helping flesh out their various personalities, the device draws attention to the fact that we know these characters on a fairly shallow level. They don't spend a lot of time thinking about friends or family or personal history beyond how they got their abilities. For the most part, the heroes are formulaic; a power, a codename, an archetypical attitude. (Gorgon is the tough, street-wise bad boy. Stealth is the strong, silent, Batman type, only she's a woman. St. George is the fair-haired, fundamentally decent and humble hero that everyone admires, somewhere on the spectrum between Superman and Captain America.)

However, Ex-Heroes doesn't need in depth character study and introspection to be a successful novel. It's got superheroes punching zombies and zombies eating superheroes in a plot that's flawlessly executed. Every shoe drops at exactly the second it needs to drop. The novel is a smashing success as a page turner. If you pick it up, you'll be pleasantly surprised by how tough it is to put down.

Read more by James Maxey

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