Tuesday, 4 January 2005

Biff Mitchell: The War Bug (2004)

Edition: Double Dragon, 2004
Review number: 1281

There are two, clear, parallel trends in modern computing. One is that the virtual world is going to become more like the real one, in the sense that it will be possible to deceive human participants into perceiving it as though it were real: like the virtual world of The Matrix, internally consistent and believeably solid, yet containing possibilities beyond mundane physics. No illusion destroying tools like keyboards in the way; and no system failures. On the other hand, reality is becoming more like the virtual world, as computers take over more and more (gadgets like Internet connected fridges which eliminate the need for food shopping, for example), and interfaces become smaller and more invisible and intuitive. The War Bug is set in a future in which reality and virtual reality are almost indistinguishable, in which most individuals live complex virtual lives more satisfying than their real existences, interacting with the avatars of other real people and constructed virtual personalities. There are two big hurdles, one legal, and the other technical: the Reality Laws prohibit the construction of a virtual personality which pretends to be real; and no one has yet managed to endow a virtual personality with true sentience. The plot of The War Bug concerns a man who has created a virtual family, a wife and daughter, who are somehow true people and who can convincingly persuade others of this (though Mitchell is more vague about the definition of sentience to link it to this kind of Turing Test like view; he seems to indicate more that it is the ability to carry out introspection). When his secret is discovered, all three are put in great danger from powerful people who control the online world, who want to exploit computer sentience for their own ends. At the same time, an extremely sophisticated computer virus, the War Bug, is beginning to destroy whole virtual communities - how is this, which appers to Abner as a huge pig, connected to his work and his family?

There is one immense hurdle to reading The War Bug, and that is its style. It is extremely colloquial, relentlessly quirky and often exceptionally irritating. The prose gives the impression that it is the act of a strange stand-up comedian. It is well worth keeping going, though, and the style is reasonably appropriate to the content. (I can see that other people would possibly find it amusing, too, but it is not a form of humour that greatly appeals to me, and as a joke it goes on far too long - a criticism I also often feel is applicable to stand-up comedians as well.) The informality of the prose is so great that it presents something of a paradox: it is written in language so colloquial that it becomes hard to read. The chapters are very short, and jump around a lot, which means it takes a long time to understand what is going on and to get a feel for the main characters. Some editing would have been useful here, particularly of the background presented in the very first pages, which nearly persuaded me not to continue.

In some ways this is basically a criticism that certain aspects of this novel are not to my taste; other readers may well love the way in which The War Bug is written. Once I did finally get into it, I found the story fascinating; it deals with philosophical ideas that have interested me for a long time, ones which could be said to be basic to the (intelligent end of) the science fiction and fantasy genres: the nature of reality, and the nature of humanity. The story suddenly becomes gripping at the point where Abner's family is kidnapped by powerful individuals who want to obtain the secret of sentience, in a way that the destruction of the virtual cities and even the deaths of thousands whose avatars were caught up in their ends had not been. Though many of the ideas are not particularly new (reference points include the obvious Gibson and Stephenson, but I felt that there was also a strong kinship with the drug induced virtual worlds of Stanislaus Lem's The Futurological Congress), it is well done and the background shows that Mitchell is a writer with at least some ideas of his own.

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