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Divergence by Tony Ballantyne

01/04/2012. Contributed by Andy Whitaker

Buy Divergence in the USA - or Buy Divergence in the UK

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pub: Bantam Spectra. 389 page paperback. Price: $6.99 (US), $ 8.99 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-553-58930-6.

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I do like it when a book hooks me. I find I’m constantly drawn back to it to read just a bit more. ‘Divergence’ had that effect on me. It’s an interesting tale set around 2252 so that’s only 240 years away. The summary on the back cover describes how the mid-23rd century Earth is governed by an all-seeing AI called the Watcher who is guiding humans in all aspects of their lives and development. We are also told of Judy, who appears to be human but is not. She was apparently made by DIANA, a traditional commercial corporation that was exterminated by the Watcher when it gained control of the Earth. After being rescued by a surviving remnant of the DIANA Corporation, Judy is sent back to Earth to confront the Watcher.

While the back page summary is true, there’s lots more going on here. We have the normal SF things such as space ships with faster-than-light drives and artificial gravity but we are also treated to quantum events. These happen in the normal day-to-day universe at scales varying from the small ones we can observe to the truly enormous. Dark Seeds appear to be a malevolent quantum object that starts small but can grow quickly the more it is observed and studied. There is also a lot more to the AIs than the initial description. As you may expect, another AI called Chris is contesting the Watcher’s rule. In this bitter struggle people are just another tool to be used.

We join the story half-way through where the dysfunctional crew of a trading ship is making use of the ‘Fair Exchange’ arbitration software to negotiate a trade. The results of the Fair Exchange (FE) are often surprising and are another layer to the story. After several FEs, the crew has been divided into two, as has the original spaceship. One crew exits stage left to continue trading while the remaining crew gains Judy and an obligation to take her to Earth as a result of an FE trade. The remaining crew consists of Miss Rose - an elderly lady suffering from dementia, Edward - who appears to be a simpleton, Maurice - a normal human male and Saskia - a normal human female with an attitude problem. From this point forward, the story covers the journey back to Earth and is interspaced with flashbacks to an earlier time in the form of Judy’s dreams. They act to give us some history and context to the story.

It’s during these dreams and subsequent events when I began to think that the story might actually be a bit about life itself. Effort is spent to point out that disabled people are just as human as able-bodied people and should be cherished as they are. There is also musings that life may be a naturally spontaneously occurring event that is not confined to the organic environment. I should also say God and the master creator is mentioned occasionally but they are not major elements of the story.

It’s difficult to comment more on the story without introducing spoilers. However, Schrödinger’s cat has had kittens, which was a nice touch, as was having the cargo hold with six planes of gravity with a null gravity field in the centre for the really delicate cargo items. Indeed there is a lot going for this novel but it is not without its problems. The fact that there are so many levels to the story means that there has to be short-cuts. For example, the Dark Seeds that grow into Dark Plants were not properly explained. They just seem to be a normal part of the universe. The FE software could have been better explored, as could the AI Chris. There were elements of the ending itself was a little confusing for me. Not I hasten to say in the final outcome, but in some of the events that happened during the latter stages.

Having pointed out that the book has some minor flaws I truly enjoyed reading this, a proper Science Fiction story.

Andy Whitaker

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