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Recursion by Tony Ballantyne

01/09/2004. Contributed by Tomas L. Martin

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pub: TOR. 345 page enlarged paperback. Price: 12.99 (UK). ISBN: 1-405-4139-0.

check out website: www.toruk.com

English humour and the literature that contains it is ironic, satirical and often a little obtuse to those not from the Isles. Masters like Pratchett, Elton or Adams combine a thick edge of satire into an interesting mix of intriguing story and just plain ridiculous.

However, it's when the quintessential British humour slips into stories it doesn't need to be in that problems result. There's nothing worse than a well-written story that can't decide if it's humorous or serious. Unfortunately, 'Recursion' is at times guilty of such a crime.


Tony Ballantyne's debut novel follows three groups of characters at different times in the future. The central plotline revolves around an AI 'watcher' evolving to take control of the world, in a roundabout way.

The first group of characters exist some twenty years in the future, as a 1984-style government begins to exert itself on the world. Eva grows sick of her controlled existence and tries to commit suicide but the watching cameras spot it and send her to a psychiatric home with others similarly unimpressed with the oppressive regime system. There she learns of the possible existence of a 'Watcher', a rogue AI that may or may not be helpful.

The second storyline follows the spy-like Constantine Storey, a 'ghost' programmed to exist outside the surveillance nets. It's an industrial espionage story with a few interesting twists.
The third character is Herb, an incompetent rich planet-builder who gets recruited by the mysterious Robert Johnson to destroy a vast AI civilisation that is attempting to take over the galaxy. I think it's this storyline that lets the book down most, as the off-the-wall humour in this section overwhelms and confuses the dark irony of the other two characters.

The writing is decent enough, with some very nice stylish sequences, particularly Constantine's character and the four computer personalities that share his head. Herb's section is genuinely funny on occasion.

The sheer incompatibility of the three different storylines jolts the reader out of anyone feeling for the book as a whole and the overall mood suffers.

Ballantyne looks good for a first time novelist but the schizophrenic nature of 'Recursion' limited all enthusiasm I had for his writing skills. The main thing I came away with was that the book didn't know what it wanted to be, humour or thriller, satire or serious. If Ballantyne concentrated on just one of these sub-genres he would have a far stronger novel as a result.

Tomas L. Martin

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