In this sci-fi novel, factions fight for survival and dominance generations after humans lost control of artificial intelligence.
In the near future, Axel Gillian becomes the security director for a rich, powerful corporation that has uncovered an enormous potential threat: open-source, artificial intelligence software that could become powerful enough to compete with and destroy humanity itself. Axel’s mission is to shut it down before this happens. Several generations later, what was once the United States is now divided into two realms, the Spoke lands and the Essentialist territory, lying roughly on either side of the Shenandoah Valley. To the west, Essentialists have more land and a numerical advantage over the Spokes; they view all technology with deep distrust for causing the calamitous Detonation. To the east, the Spokes are squeezed between the Essentialists and the eastern shore, which is overrun with disease and bandits. The Spokes’ comfort with machinery gives them more effective equipment, but both cultures must avoid using pre-Detonation electronics, which attracts retchers—birdlike creatures that vomit device-destroying acid. Expanding population pressures increase the conflict between the two sides, which are each beset by internal political and philosophical struggles. Among the many well-developed characters, key figures include Flora Clearwater, an Essentialist who joins a prisoner-exchange mission to the Spoke lands and has a secret agenda. Among the Spokes, young Owen of Seeville (once known as Charlottesville) joins an expedition to retrieve equipment from one of many “bike towers”: cylindrical warehouses each housing about 20,000 bicycles; this mission, too, has a secret objective. He winds up in Yorktown, which is led by elderly Madison Banks, formerly a Lord of Seeville. She’s among the “New Founders” who value democracy, and when she hears what’s going on in Seeville, she decides it’s time to go back. Meanwhile, an exciting, tense Essentialist-versus-Spoke showdown brews that will eventually pit one artificial intelligence against another and reveal Axel’s long-ago plan to protect the future.
Otto (A Toxic Ambition, 2012) weaves together the many strands of this complicated, thoughtful, and exciting novel with great skill. He makes full use of the book’s sprawling length to present vivid characters and a future world that vibrates with conflicts and ideas. The story builds to bigger, increasingly exciting scenes of tension, battle, and violence, but Otto never forgets his characters’ humanity. The various subcultures get intriguing suggestions of richness, as when the cannibalistic leader of the Allegheny people wears “a lattice of bones cascading down her back, each one laced together by strands of her raggedy hair” and warns captors that she’ll “add your bones to my staircase.” Although many post-apocalyptic novels give readers landmarks that are recognizable from the modern world, Otto also introduces more mysterious elements, such as the aforementioned bike towers and colossal statues whose purposes are unimaginable. But these elements don’t merely baffle—they also provide real payoffs. In addition, Otto’s reflections on hubris and warnings about artificial intelligence have a chilling plausibility.
A highly entertaining and absorbing combination of philosophy and action featuring robustly individualized characters.