I ended last year, and started this one, by discovering a great new writer of science fiction. In Reality 36, Guy Haley combines smartass private investigators with artificial intelligence, creating a truly entertaining posthuman thriller. There was just one problem.
It ended on a cliffhanger.
Fortunately, by the time I got around to reading the book, its sequel’s release date was fast approaching. So I was eagerly awaiting this month’s subscription email from Angry Robot Books telling me I could download the titles for May. Omega Point picks up where Reality 36 leaves off (so spoilers for that one, ’kay?).
Richards, a Class Five AI, and his cyborg partner Otto Klein, are running for their lives. Richards finds himself trapped in the Reality Realms, derelict remnants of advanced immersive virtual environments that their foe has co-opted for a more nefarious purpose. Meanwhile, in the Real, Otto is forced into an uneasy alliance with the VIA, the agency in charge of watching (and policing) artificial intelligences. They have to act fast to curtail the plans of k52, another Class Five. If they fail, there’s no telling how many innocent people will lose their lives. But as Haley shows, even success can come at a grim price.
I was originally going to compare Omega Point to the previous novel by saying that this book is less of a mystery and more of a thriller. That’s not true, though. The mystery of Reality 36 was who was behind the death of Zhang Qifang—not to mention the nuclear attack on the office of Richards & Klein. These were very much existential threats, which kept the stakes high and the pace quick. In Omega Point, we know who the villain is, but k52’s plans are still unclear (though they are pretty easy to figure out if you’re familiar with this genre). Richards original enters the Reality Realms to do some recon, but he gets stuck there when k52’s defences go up.
As much as I like Richards as a character, I did not enjoy most of the chapters that feature him. Haley’s descriptions of Reality 37, as Richards dubs it, are detailed and fantastical, but the milieu doesn’t do much for me. It was a somewhat wonky, Alice in Wonderland atmosphere that was jarring in juxtaposition with the suspenseful or thrilling chapters featuring Klein and Valdaire. The inherently mutable nature of the Reality Realm makes it difficult to get a sense of the rules, which in turn makes picking up on foreshadowing and trying to untangle the complicated knots of mystery much harder. That is to say, it’s like reading a mystery novel where the killer turns out to have been disguised as an armchair the entire time. The only truly fascinating aspect of these chapters was watching Richards deal with being trapped in a realistic simulation of a human body. Richards, like a lot of non-human entities in fiction, emulates the humanoid form and often wonders what it is like to be human. Now that he has a chance to experience meat, he’s finding it a rude awakening.
I much preferred the chapters in the Real, where Klein and Valdaire go after the one man they think can shed some light on what might be happening in the Reality Realms. (This subplot is quite literally a game of “Where’s Waldo?”, which was a fun callback the first three times Haley used it and then became somewhat stale.) Alas, their efficacy is hindered by the pursuit of a cyborg agent, Kaplinsky, who has some serious Terminator-like invulnerability happening. Kaplinsky is a foil to Klein, who unlike his garrulous partner is much more withdrawn and taciturn. Kaplinsky is the machine-like being Klein might have come had he not had the emotional stability provided by his wife. Now, he’s wrapped up in memories of his wife’s death owing to complications from her cybernetic implants. These painful memories are inextricably linked to what Klein himself has become.
Haley masterfully weaves these intimate effects of technology on people (artificial or not) into the larger story. Although the Singularity is absent from the world of Richards & Klein, the trend of our growing dependence on automation and algorithms has continued relentlessly. The question now is not so much “will the machines replace us” as it is “will the machines rule us [because they’re better at it]?” Computers are just really good at some tasks, particularly when it comes to sorting through information. Even now we’re handing over so much autonomy and authority to computer systems, so the idea that this has become the default in the 22nd century is not so far-fetched.
I can’t say the same for Haley’s use of the eponymous Omega Point as k52’s ultimate goal. This is a topic that comes up often in far-future considerations of posthumanism, and I find the various interpretations given by different authors both fascinating and thought-provoking. Although Haley’s revelation is perfectly consistent with what we already know about k52’s personality, I’m still having trouble understanding why k52’s attainment of the Omega Point in the Reality Realms would be such a threat to the Real. I understand that during its moment of infinite simulated processing power k52 will be able to simulate all possible realities and therefore become omniscient. Yet what good does this do k52 if it only has that one moment to act before the reality of an electromagnetic pulse fries all the Reality Realm servers? It’s all well and good to achieve apotheosis in a simulation, but if you can’t reach out from the simulation because all your servers have just been destroyed … well, let’s just say that this aspect of k52’s plan still confuses me. (Plus, I’m sceptical that we’d have servers capable of even simulating towards an Omega Point that aren’t unwieldy, planet-sized carbon computers….)
Whereas Reality 36 had a feeling that anything could happen, Omega Point has a much more linear plot, with Richards & Klein racing against time towards a final boss fight. For me, this makes it less enjoyable. Reality 36 certainly has a more profound exploration of how Richards relates to and interacts with the real world. The glimpses of “ordinary” activities for Richards, whether it’s travelling the Grid to meet with another AI or donning a sheathe to do some recon, were really cool. In contrast, Richards stuck in a simulated meat suit in the Reality Realms was less interesting. Similarly, with Richards & Klein separated for the majority of the book, we get very little banter between the AI and the cyborg. That was one of my favourite parts of Reality 36! Hence, Omega Point provides the much-needed conclusion to the story started in Reality 36 but doesn’t quite cause that same satisfied feeling I had upon finishing its predecessor.
In an afterword, Haley writes that he has tried not to focus on a single Big Idea but rather create a future that is cogent, self-consistent, and “plausible”—plus, he wanted to write a story that was entertaining. I think he’s succeeded in these respects, although we could spend a long time quibbling about what qualifies as plausible! He’s not so much predicting the future as sketching a future based on current trends, and then using that future to examine the consequences of some of our major contemporary concerns, from global warming to the increasing complexity of machines. Whatever the method, the results are definitely worth reading. I look forward to the next Richards & Klein investigation, whenever that may be….