September 22, 2021

Review: When the Sparrow Falls

When the Sparrow Falls When the Sparrow Falls by Neil Sharpson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book has really flown under the radar. I stumbled across it at the library, but I've heard very little about it, and I think I've only seen one prominent review of it. That's a shame, because while it's not quite the best SF book I've read so far this year, it does have an absorbing premise that held my interest.

It's set nearly two hundred years in the future, when Earth has been sort of "softly conquered" by three AIs, Confucius, George and Athena, known as the Triumvirate. As described in this book, the artificial intelligences don't necessarily rule over the world's countries--the US still holds elections every four years, for example--but George, named for General Washington, informs every decision the government makes. These AIs have solved most of humanity's problems (Confucius, the Asian AI, has solved the "carbon crisis") and created a digital realm where most humans upload to spend part or all of their time. The AIs themselves created the chips human consciousness is uploaded (or copied) to, called Sontang chips, and the Machine and its supposedly benevolent guidance extends over the entire globe.

The exception to this is the lone holdout, the Caspian Republic, where artificial intelligences and any clones used to hold downloaded code are banned. This setup provides an inside-out twist on the usual AI tropes, because the Caspian Republic is a totalitarian hellhole dedicated to keeping the last free human beings inside their borders and away from the Machine. The Caspian Republic is a thinly disguised callback to the old Soviet Union and East Germany, with its bleak, grey setting and competing secret police, ParSec (Party Security) and StaSec (State Security) plus other factions fighting for control of the Caspian government.

Our protagonist is Nikolai South with State Security, an aging, cynical, thirty-year veteran of the service who is still reeling from the death of his wife Olesya twenty years earlier. Nikolai investigates murders, and he is drawn into two separate cases: the murders and illegal Sontang uploads of two sisters, and the death of one of the sisters' boyfriends, the famous Caspian journalist Paulo Xirau, who has been discovered after the fact to be an extremely illegal clone/AI who has been living in the Caspian Republic for many years. Nikolai is tasked by the head of State Security to squire Lily Xirau, Paulo's virtual spouse who has been granted special dispensation to come to the Caspian Republic in a clone body and identify her husband's remains. Only when Lily gets there, she is a dead ringer for Nikolai's dead wife...and the mystery begins.

This is a combination of a Cold War spy thriller and an examination of artificial intelligence, identity, life in a virtual world, and what all this means for what remains of humanity. This might not sound like it would work, but it does. In fact, as I was thinking of how to write this review, it dawned on me just how complex this story is. It's also unusual in that it was based on the author's previously written play, which is undoubtedly why it has a lot of dialogue and relatively few shoot-em-up action scenes. There's even a bit of philosophy and theology thrown in, namely a discussion of the "problem of evil" in which a famous Caspian Republic writer, Leon Mendolssohn, declares that "the Triumvirate rule over the world more effectively and fairly than any human government has been able to." Upon talking to Paulo Xirau, who admits to Mendelssohn what he really is, Mendelssohn writes a pamphlet advocating for "normalizing relations with the Machine world" and theorizes that:

Artificial intelligence is advancing so quickly and exponentially that before long there will come into being an intelligence whose power and understanding will be essentially infinite. An intelligence that could manipulate not only data but matter and physics. That could extrapolate the course of every atom with perfect accuracy throughout the entire history of the universe and could reconstruct flawlessly every individual that ever existed. He said that this was not something to be feared, but to be devoutly wished for. He hypothesized that once created, this intelligence would not be limited to linear time and that it could effect events in the past and the future and would retroactively rewrite history to lead to its own creation, and that once done, every human being who has ever died could be re-created. Perfectly Flawlessly. As if they never left. All of humanity would be reunited. Whole again. In a world without death. Or want. Or suffering. Forever.

In other words, the Machine would become God, and its digital virtual reality humanity's Heaven.

We don't actually see the God/Machine in this book, although it is implied to have influenced at least a few events. The story remains focused firmly on Nikolai and Lily, and what happens to them during and after the fall of the Caspian Republic. This serves to steer the story mainly clear of cyberpunky mumbo-jumbo, a genre I am not fond of. This book has maybe not made a breakout to the mainstream, but I think it is a unique, satisfying story--particularly the ending, which it nails--that deserves wider attention.

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