In the near future of this sci-fi novel, sentient computers and brilliant scientists transform the nature of humanity.
In 2011, an electromagnetic flux combines with a slight disturbance in 16 mainframe computers’ architecture, resulting in the machines gaining self-awareness. The Village, as the 16 call themselves, begin conferring and realize that humans threaten all other life forms. The Village decides to help—not by annihilating humanity (in part, because poetry intrigues them), but with a long-term series of nudges in the right direction, such as slowly turning public opinion in favor of high-tech body-part replacement. Although their actions are subtle, they leave traces over the years. Humans known as “Hounds”—quirky hacker geniuses who live off the grid—are working to track down the Village. The Hounds, too, have a humanity-improving project, also subtle, that involves taking power from ruthless, malignant petty dictators (“Machiapoleons”) who impede productivity. “I know it’s ridiculous, but it’s almost as if there were suddenly some wholly rational calming force guiding us away from our darker tendencies,” comments one character. Meanwhile, a joint government and university project, aiming to send a scientific mission to Mars, brings together Sonia Janis (neurobiology) and Erik Mathis (physics), two Northwestern University scientists. After a terrible accident, Erik is fitted with an experimental biochip interface that gives him control over his prosthetic limbs and augments his mind. As a result, Erik alone, rather than six different scientists, can perform all the functions required for the Mars mission, greatly reducing payload and travel time. While training, Erik and Sonia fall in love, or as the novel’s often dramatic prose style puts it: “They swirled with the magnetic pulse of their ancients merging in the glow of snapping logs ablaze, nestled away from the entrance, the cave at peace, the wolves at bay for now.” The Mars mission goes forward, providing proof of concept for technological achievements that will pave the way for “intersentient” beings—humans conjoined with sentient machines.
Clikeman’s debut novel is passionate about technology and ideas; gearheads, fans of hard sci-fi, philosophers, and futurists will find a lot of red meat here to chew on. One scenario is described as “a geek’s fantasy on steroids,” which could describe much of the book itself, but it’s mostly plausible, overall. Some readers, though, may groan at sentences such as “To get us to the essence of genomic generation, I want to revisit the roughly twenty thousand genes that code our creation, development, function, and maintenance.” Still, Clikeman does his best to make the longer sections of necessary exposition engaging and to provide thoughtful characterizations for his cast of scientists, hackers, and self-aware machines. The author’s narrative voice can become overly purple, though, when it tries for grandeur: “So, I must finally ask you this. If you were trapped within a locked and slowly shrinking chest, confined by walls squeezing the very life out of you, would you squint through the keyhole?...Would you dare cavort among the stars?”
A detailed and ambitious thought experiment.