Reviewer: Jake Beal

Author: Tony Ballantyne

Published: 2006

Reviewed: 2007-08-26

Publisher: Spectra

Mr. Ballantyne has an admirable scope of ambition, envisioning in
"Recursion" a plausible future world and consequences of information
technology much different and darker than other contemporaries like
Doctorow or Banks. Unfortunately, neither his knowledge of physics
nor his storytelling abilities are quite up to the task.

The first, I can forgive. It's one of those icepick-to-the-forehead
kind of things that gives me blinding pain every time I encounter it,
but I can forgive it because it's not actually important, even though
it's absolutely central to the story. His problem, basically, is that
he is blinded by the elegance of math.

See, a machine that can duplicate itself can replicate exponentially,
and so all you need is one and a little while later you've got
billions. Only, if they're replicating really really fast, like they
do in his story, then the speed at which they move becomes significant
too. So if you drop a teensy little duplicating bug down on a planet
and come back a little while later, you'll find that it's increased
quadratically or cubically, not exponentially, because only the
surface of the swarm is exposed to fresh resources. Likewise, if
you're going to defeat a swarm of replicators by outgrowing them, a
single one of your faster replicators is not sufficient, especially
when you know that your enemy is able to blow shit up on a really
dramatic scale and ought to just cauterize and have done with it.

But the math is so compelling, so elegant, that Mr. Ballantyne
(through his asshole semi-omniscient mouthpiece) prefers to lecture it
to us instead of actually thinking it through himself. Of course,
since we have only his characters' word on what is happening for much
of the book, maybe we shouldn't be believing them either, but I see no
compelling reason to go down that rabbit-hole. Like I said, however,
this sin I can forgive, because every author gets to screw up their
physics some if it makes their story work.

What I cannot forgive is his failure to successfully weave three
timelines together into one. I didn't even realize what was going on
at first, didn't remember the dateline at the top of chapter one so
that when I got to chapter two and three I'd notice that they were
different. And the characters in the three stories are so different
that I thought at first that they were each exposing a different
aspect of this future society, rather than each exposing a different
aspect of three different societies in different centuries.

Then they each went into a different land of utter weirdness, and I
figured, OK, let's see where Mr. Ballantyne is taking this. And there
were very interesting societal ideas mixed in, much less ham-handedly
than usual when an author is making a Point. But then they all just
sort of kept on going. By halfway through the book, I had determined
the common theme that linked the three stories, but I still didn't see
why I was reading all three of them at once, rather than each in turn.

In the end they all technically joined up, but only in the least
satisfying way possible. In fact, it's so irrelevant that I will tell
you without fear of a spoiler: the three main characters all turn out
to be distant relations of one another. Apparently in Mr. Ballantyne's
world, main character status is transmitted venereally. There's
certainly no other justification for pasting these three loosely
related stories together this way. Worse yet, by doing so he
effectively spoils the first two stories completely: the big mystery
in each is effectively solved by the very premise of the following
story. If he had simply packaged them as three novellas, in
sequential order, I would have enjoyed it much more.

All told, however, "Recursion" is a fairly reasonable attempt. I have
to admire his vision and ambition, and I enjoyed about one third of
the novel---the first third of each story, before the connections
between them became clear. In the end, though, he just never managed
to present to me a coherent enough story for me to care.