Monday, January 03, 2005

'Transcension': Boy Meets Girl Meets Singularity

It is a testament to good storytelling that in a novel suffused with high technology of the pre- and post singularity ages, a thread revolving around a young man in an Amish-like community can be the most compelling. Such is the nature of Damien Broderick’s ‘Transcension’, a clever blend of nostalgia and discovery that satisfies despite a couple of important flaws.

The inevitable clash of cultural and romantic tension between the agrarian young man and a brusquely modern teenage girl from beyond the valley occurs early and enjoyably, beginning a down-to-earth adventure occurring within a broader tale of Singularity and human destiny. I could reveal more about the plot without spoiling the ending, but this is a book in which much of the page-turning suspense comes from the desire to learn more about how this fictional universe is structured, and why its characters live the way they do.

Most every character is likable, even the ones standing obstinately in the way of progress in general and our protagonists in particular. Broderick imbues them all with a measure of his wry humor appropriate to their station. He also gives endearing streaks of sensitivity and innocence, even to those whose roles would seem to imply an informed detachment.

The technology pulling this plot together is more remarkable for the wit and style with which it is deployed than for the mechanics of it all, which are left largely to the imagination. It is a controversial convention of Singularity-aware science fiction shared by authors such as Vernor Vinge—and Broderick’s Australian contemporary, Greg Egan—to present the higher technology of tomorrow as being devised by minds so much smarter than ours that we might not understand the explanations even if we had them, fulfilling Arthur C. Clarke’s law that sufficiently advanced technology would be indistinguishable from magic.

So is this book “hard” sci-fi, or soft? Or is it pure fantasy? These kinds of questions show why so many publications, bookstores, and libraries no longer bother making such distinctions, if they ever did. ‘Transcension’ definitely comes across as science fiction, even if some of the higher technology has little, if any, foundation in known science.

And this is certainly no space opera, (like Star Wars) where the technology is a merely a stylistic background on which an archetypal melodrama is played. Transcension’s characters could not exist in a fictional universe with any other combination of technologies.

In fact, Broderick seems to respect his technology enough that he felt it necessary to include a number of real-world quotations relevant to possibility of artificial intelligence; I suspect that this novel exists, in part, to address AI naysayers.

Taken in its entirety, Transcension makes a good read, and I happily recommend it to anyone looking for some unusual and enjoyable fiction. But Trancension is not without its failings.

Most glaringly, Broderick commits what, in modern fiction, is the nearly unpardonable sin of direct dialect: scenes told from the point of view of the female lead are written in the same cropped style as her dialogue, which eschews articles and pronouns. I subscribe to the mainstream notion that dialects should be implied with a relatively small number of words, phrases, figures of speech, or other patterns woven into that character’s scenes. These are more than enough to give the reader a sense of the character’s way of speaking. Once you get carried away and start explicitly stylizing with the swagger of Mark Twain, you will almost certainly violate the modern commandment: “Thou shalt not get in the way of thy reader.”

I was also somewhat annoyed when, near the novel’s climax, Broderick chose to present a few scenes from the viewpoints of minor characters with whom we had not made any strong emotional connection—for we had not previously spent much, if any, time inside their heads. This is a borderline violation of the modern guideline stating that new characters should not be introduced near the end of a story; sure, we knew them, but not well enough for them to take center stage near the peak of suspense.

Authors, of course, are allowed to break any rules they wish, but they are advised to have good reasons for accepting the inevitable tradeoffs. I, the reader, didn’t feel these particular departures were warranted. And this brings up the Prime Principle of writing: the reader is always right.