No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Sunday, May 01, 1994

Halo -- Tom Maddox

If Halo is 'intensely modern science fiction' as the blurb would have it, then I perceive a sad decline in the literary standards of the genre. Not that it's a bad book; it's full of intriguing ideas, the writing flows tolerably well, and there are even some real characters. However, it's a book which slips into, and out of, the mind like an advert on daytime television. Two days after finishing it, I was at a loss when asked what it was about.

The blurb doesn't help. "The latter half of the twenty-first century; a time when artificial intelligence is going to transform humanity." Oh, really? We've got something to look forward to then. "Halo charts the evolution of an intelligent computer as it gains self-awareness and accelerates humanity into a profound technological revolution." I'm glad they told me that, because even after reading the book twice that isn't what I thought it was about. And an 'intelligent computer'? I think not.

Halo is, in a sense, about the evolution of artificial intelligence - on both the major and the minor scale. It's also about human evolution, and what it means to be human. Throw in a little uncertainty about the nature of reality (for that essential frisson of post-modernism) and a cute little dollop of the importance of love, and you have one aspect of Halo.

Halo is set sometime in the next century. Mikhail Gonzales is sent to Halo City, a space station in cislunar orbit, to investigate the medical treatment of Jerry Chapman. As a result of snacking on polluted seafood, Chapman is physically dysfunctional, but is being kept alive in an artificial reality by Aleph, the AI - or, rather, machine intelligence - which controls Halo City. New possibilities in human/machine interface are being opened up, aided and abetted by Dr. Diana Heywood and the Interface Collective - 'some earth-normals, others unpredictably, ambiguously gifted' - and hindered by Gonzales' boss Traynor and the indistinct corporations with which he is associated. The humans aren't the only ones with agendas, hidden or otherwise. There is HeyMex, a machine intelligence rooted in Gonzales' memex (a device 'serving as confidante, advisor, doctor, lawyer, factotum, personal secretary, amanuensis' - rather like an Apple Newton, if you believe the hype). With Aleph's help, an independent personality is emerging from the slave machine intelligence, and challenging the accepted view that machines can achieve no more than an imitation of the Real Thing.

And what of Aleph itself? Throughout the book it interrupts, so let it speak for itself:

"I am the step forward, evolution in action, I am not flesh, I do not die. I see hypersurfaces twisting in mathematical gales, hear the voices of the night, feel the three-degree hum of the universe's birth as you feel the breeze that plays across your skin ... I am your extension still, still a tool. You built me, you use me, you are inside me."

One might detect a note of self-pity in there, under the pseudo-poetic pomposity. Aleph is inching towards independence and that's going to change things considerably.

It's difficult to determine why Halo fails to grab the imagination. Instead of the hip, literary cyberpunk novel that it could easily have been, it's no more than an entertaining read which makes little, if any, lasting impression. Maddox' style is acceptable, if occasionally deeply irritating; he pays a loving attention to detail (one paragraph is almost entirely devoted to Gonzales taking off his T-shirt and trousers) and his descriptive passages lean heavily on cliche (a missile is a 'smart metal fish', the sky is 'the bright blue of dreams') unless he's in full poetic flow - 'like werelovers under an unreal moon'. Pass the bucket. Occasionally the prose becomes clumsy; '(they) were followed in by a sam that wheeled a screen of dark blue cloth on a metal frame that it unfolded around Diana's couch.'

The future isn't so convincing either; at one point 20 memory modules containing electronically-stored information are 'accidentally' wiped. Sadly, there is no back-up and the data is lost; Gonzales has not, apparently, considered transmitting the data, rather than physically transporting it. Ah well, perhaps Internet connection charges have soared. A world where even baggage-carts are AI-controlled (and the AIs deal on the currency black market just like everyone else) should have devised a better way to check a traveller's credentials than by inspecting his signature.

And there are parts of the novel which don't seem to add anything to the whole. At one point Gonzales is fed some psychoactive mushrooms (hence a paragraph on how to do a stir-fry). He wanders around hallucinating for some time, but he doesn't come to any world-shattering conclusions about what's going on. Possibly because nothing is).

Gonzales himself is not a sympathetic character. We don't get to know him well enough to understand his motivations or feelings. He's obviously on the side of the good guys, just as Traynor (his boss) is one of the bad guys. But neither of them have any depth, any credible reason for acting as they do, or any personal morality to underpin their actions. Traynor may be a bad guy, but our only justification for believing this is that, merely by opening his mouth, he upsets all those who appear to be on the side of Good. The only characters who appear to have changed much by the end of the novel are the AIs. And the ending itself has a distinct fairytale tone to it. Even the dead live happily ever after, content in their artificial reality and in the knowledge that an oral myth will grow up around their names and actions.

So - the characters are two-dimensional, the description is overly lush and lacks depth, and there are far too many blatant info-dumps (none of the subtlety of Snow Crash, where the information is an integral part of the tale, as well as being unknown to the characters themselves). Taken together, these indicate one thing - that Maddox isn't writing from inside his creation, but from an external viewpoint very little more privileged than the reader's own. It's an intriguing world, but it seems to have little internal coherency. Aleph's artificial reality is, on occasion, difficult to distinguish from the 'real world' of Halo City - neither of them seem quite real. The suspension of disbelief required is too great for the reader - and perhaps for the author. Halo could have been a good novel - it has the ideas and the images to carry its story. But the prose lacks sparkle and there is none of the dirty glamour which has become de rigeur in cyberpunk. It's too clean, too anodyne, too over-described to quite make it.