July 24, 2021

Review: Unity

Unity Unity by Elly Bangs
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is an incredibly ambitious book for a first novel. (In the Afterward the author says she's been working on it off and on for eighteen years.) Whether it's successful in that ambition is a different question. I think overall it's well-written with engaging characters and some rather depressing worldbuilding.

I suppose whether you like this book depends on whether you can cope with the elements of said worldbuilding. This book is set in a future a hundred and forty years from now, when climate change is in full swing. The seas have risen, the continents are scorched, and most of the human species has moved into undersea cities. Governments and countries are fractured and broken, the United States is a distant memory, and the undersea cities are, for the most part, ruled by criminal warlords. Our protagonist, Danae, is desperate to leave her undersea world, Bloom City. She has a time limit to meet up with what she calls the Unity, the nanotech-powered gestalt consciousness she severed herself from five years earlier. This book is the story of her quest to reunite with the rest of herself, the different factions that are after her, and the philosophical discussions as to whether a post-singularity unified consciousness is, or should be, the future of humanity.

At the end, the book seems to be saying that the answer to that question should be "yes":

You know who I am. I'm Danae, with all the 223 lives whose combined memory and experiences amounted to her consciousness--and I am Alexei, with all the lives he took. I'm more than the sum of those parts: I am all the things neither of them were capable of doing, or being, or realizing, as long as they were separate; connections they couldn't make, thoughts too complex to fit inside a single head, emotions too vast to pump through the chambers of one heart.

But I know things, too. When I turn the Whole's parting gift between my palms and focus, they all bloom so vividly in my mind: the innermost workings of cells and molecules and subatomic particles, the comprehensible language of all matter and energy and motion; the most basic foundational principle to the most chaotic emergent quality. I know how to cure the plagues and halt the famines. I know how to turn the sky blue again.

I think I know how to heal this dying world.

There's only one hope I carry with me now: that I could be the right person to do it. I've maimed and killed, feared and hated--but I have also loved, rescued, protected, created, and given birth. I contain everything that is human--and finally, after everyone I've been, none of it is beyond my understanding. Because I am understanding. I am unity.

The being referenced in this excerpt, the Whole, is at the end, Danae's primary antagonist. It is what remained of the initial Unity after she severed herself from it. After deliberately killing a person, Danae believed she could never, and should never, be accepted by the Unity again (and the only reason she is making the journey is to let her lover, Naoto, join the Unity instead). In the intervening five years, the Unity grew to a godlike being that was prepared to let swarms of unleashed nanotech destroy the world and create a better one from the grey goo that remained. Because it considered itself to be superior.

The Whole scoffed. "We are objectively better than separate people. We can say this without ego. Even you, apart from me, are vastly more capable and more intelligent than any un-unified individual who has ever lived."

At the last, Danae uses the only thing she has to defeat the Whole--her guilt and remorse over the murder she committed. Because you are me, she says, and I have killed. So you have no business murdering the human race, or letting them die, because you are no different than them.

In the book, this gambit works. But this is the part of the worldbuilding that turned me off, because the entire idea of the Unity, or the Whole, is the creepiest goddamn thing ever. In a way, it's set up as a sort of benign, wholesome--well, maybe not wholesome, but at least non-aggressive--Borg from Star Trek. What could possibly go wrong?

So I think this is a marmite book. I kinda-sorta liked it, but it gave me the heebie-jeebies. However, there's no denying the author's talent, to come up with something like this. I hope her next book doesn't take eighteen years; but I also hope it goes in some other non-Unified direction.

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