Reality 36 is a mystery novel wrapped inside a science-fiction story wrapped inside a fun, technologically-oriented thriller. Richards & Klein are PIs in 2129. Richards is a Class Five AI, while Otto Klein is an ex-military German cyborg. And their day gets complicated when they have to solve the murder of Zhang Qifang—he was murdered twice, you see.
The stakes are high. Qifang’s disappearance and murder have sent ripples throughout the Grid, and the people (and machines) who pay attention to such things are noticing—and moving. The EuPol Five, whom Richards calls Hughie, is particularly interested in figuring out who stood to benefit from Qifang’s death. Eventually, Richards and Klein zero in on a plot involving the Reality Realms. The RRs were immersive virtual environments; the next evolution from World of Warcraft, if you will. But they were too good, and eventually they were banned. With the characters within developed enough to be declared sentient, the Reality Realms became a kind of wildlife preserve—strictly off-limits to all but the most trusted of researchers. Now someone has been tinkering with the fabric of Reality 36, to no good ends.
The pace is intense. You know those mystery novels where the detective gets the call from a smarmy police inspector, maybe goes off and investigates the scene of the crime, then meanders back to his flat and sits to ponder out a solution? I love those books. They’re awesome and cerebral. Reality 36 is nothing like this. From the first chapter to the end, Richards and Klein are out there, chasing leads or being chased by them. When Richards discovers a suspect might be hiding something in an abandoned warehouse with tough security, he creates a backdoor in that security—by blasting a hole in the warehouse wall using a combat mech. Meanwhile, Otto finds himself on the run, looking for Qifang’s fugitive postdoc student. He manages to find her annoying phone instead, just before a sniper team catches up with him. Richards & Klein are hunters and hunted here.
Reality 36 is not perfect, but it comes close. There are times when the number of characters whom Haley follows becomes slightly unwieldy. I can see why Veronica Valdaire is essential to the plot as Qifang’s protege. I was not similarly convinced by Santiago Chures. At its heart, this story is about Richards and Klein: any time the perspective did not revolve around them, it was not as interesting. Fortunately, those times more than made up for the moments we spent away. By the same token, I both loved and hated the dialogue in Reality 36. Sometimes it was so good; other times it was trite. Here’s an example of the former, from the beginning of Chapter 27:
"Did you miss me?" said Richards, out over the Grid.
"Did I what?" said Otto. He was in the heavy lifter's sickbay, wired up into three walls of medical machines. They didn't seem to be helping. He was as weak as a baby and his head ached worse than every Saturday hangover he'd ever had rolled into one.
"Didn't you hear? I got blown up, big man, by an atomic bomb!"
"I was nearly murdered by a robot pretending to be a VIA agent. Our weeks have been equally lousy," said Otto, and wished Richards would leave him be.
"But I nearly died," protested Richards. "Properly. That's traumatic, we're not supposed to die."
"Get used to the idea," said Otto. Richards fell silent. "I did not worry," Otto said less harshly. "I thought you would find a way."
"Well, yeah, naturally," said Richards sulkily. He paused. "But I still reckon nuclear bomb trumps deadly robot in the peril stakes."
For all its levity, however, Reality 36 is more than just a detective novel with a cool science-fiction setting. Haley shows how that setting can be put to good use, and he raises some of the most fascinating issues with artificial intelligence and posthumanism. He manages to do this without turning the book into a 900-page tome.
I’ve read several reviews that refer to the Singularity’s appearance in Reality 36. Well, obviously AIs play a big role in this book, but the Singularity itself is absent. Haley himself says this in the timeline he includes at the end of the novel: “2069. First true AI created…. The Singularity fails to happen”. Now, much like most scenarios for the Singularity predict, there are several extremely powerful AIs in existence who have slowly been taking over more and more of the operational aspects of human society: Hughie runs the European Police; there are three Class Five AIs, known as the Uncle Sams, who run the United States of North America in all but name. But the crucial detail of the Singularity is missing: these AIs are not bootstrapping themselves to more and more advanced levels of intelligence. They are stable.
Richards is the most stable of the bunch, at least from our limited, human perspective. His interest in human culture, grounded in his role as a private investigator who fancies fedoras and natty suits, keeps him closely aligned with his human brethren. It’s not surprising, then, that the ultimate antagonist in Reality 36 is an AI who is far removed from the world of humanity and much more at home as a disembodied consciousness. This theme that embodiment is essential is strongly reflected in other parts of Reality 36 too, from the way that the avatars of the guardians of Reality 36 are expressed to Otto’s own meditations on the symbiosis between his cybernetic and biological systems. Indeed, with the spectre of the “meat puppet” appearing a few times, Haley also emphasizes that having a body isn’t enough—one needs a body over which one has control. One needs embodiment and volition. The odd election of Zhang Qifang, which I won’t spoil, underscores this point in a bittersweet way.
So for those like me who are familiar with the posthuman dialogue, I think Reality 36 will be a rewarding change of pace: something light but deep, reminding me a lot of the likes of Charles Stross or maybe Cory Doctorow. For those who are here for the mystery, I hope you will stay for the discussions of cydroids and AIs too. While they might not be taking over any time soon, one day we will have to confront issues like this in some way—and besides, I think they are interesting ideas in their own right.
Oh, and that cliffhanger ending? Yeah, that annoyed me. But I won’t whine too much. After all, it’s foreshadowed well enough that I wasn’t too surprised. And the book earns it—the ending isn’t cheap. Haley concludes with Richards in real peril and Otto unsure how to help, with the stakes higher than ever. The antagonist is after nothing less than world domination, and it’s doing it for the most dangerous reason of all: because it wants to make the world a better place.