July 3, 2023

Review: Dual Memory

Dual Memory Dual Memory by Sue Burke
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a near-future (within the next few decades, although it's not specified) science fiction thriller. It's far enough along that there are plenty of technologies that do not exist in the present day, mainly artificial intelligence--every device used by humans is smart, from buildings and streets to carts. Yet there is no true sentience among all of these "smart" things, except for one of this story's protagonists: the personal assistant Par Augustus, who develops an obnoxious, manipulative, condescending, sometimes whiny personality all its own.

This book also takes place in something of a post-climate-change future: the setting, the artificial island of Thule, was built in the Arctic Circle using materials scavenged from drowned cities. (We don't see much of the rest of the planet, but I can well imagine what it might look like, and it's not good. But that's not this story.) It opens with an exciting action sequence, as one of our two main protagonists, Antonio Moro, is shown in a small sub firing off missiles, fighting the raiders who are trying to take the island's resources. Antonio is an artist who had been working on a recycling scow until he volunteered for the hired mercenaries Bronzewing to fight the raiders and protect the island. His sub is damaged and he is left on Thule to be taken in by the community there, where he is hired as an in-house artist for a wealthy couple. Almost by accident the newly sentient Par Augustus falls into his hands, which leads to a convoluted tale of fights against raiders without and greedy entitled capitalists within (trading in extra-terrestrial life forms from the other planets, called Extra-T's, constitutes a big part of the Thule's economy), and Par Augustus rounding up all of Thule's smart buildings and devices to join the fight.

The latter is the genuinely scary and unsettling part of the whole thing, as it is shown that all the smart devices banding together are virtually unstoppable. It's not Skynet, not yet, but Antonio realizes it easily could be. The smart buildings and things are so far adhering to Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics, but that could change. Antonio has his own ethical conundrums in dealing with Par and protecting the island against the raiders, and eventually meets up with his estranged, long-lost brother who joined them. (Antonio was raised in a climate refugee camp, and his parents were killed by the raiders, so he is very invested in his revenge against them.)

This is a thriller, but it's also an examination of the ethics of artificial intelligence, the drawbacks of capitalism, and the importance of art to the human condition. It's pretty interesting as both.

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