Recursion, by Tony Ballantyne
Tor, 2004, 12.99, 345pp
ISBN 1405041390

See also my review of Divergence

This review first appeared in The Alien Online

Tony Ballantyne is a new signing to Tor UK and Recursion is his first novel. It’s a three-part science fiction narrative that bounces between the near-future, the mid-term future and the far future, but all three eras have something in common.

In 2210 Herb is returning to check up on a little illicit experiment he set up: dropping a single von Neumann machine (VNM) on an uninhabited planet and leaving it to work its magic. For the forgetful amongst you (or those with other things to do than read up about mid-20th century mathematicians), John von Neumann came up with the concept of the self-replicating machine that can build (similarly self-replicating) copies of itself. In 2210 these machines are fairly commonplace, but their use is strictly controlled for the simple reason that, left unchecked, a rogue von Neumann machine, be it ever so small and stupid, could potentially convert the universe into copies of itself – something like a macro-scale version of the nanotechnology ‘grey goo’ scenario used to frighten naughty children and crown princes of European island nations.

Herb’s machines have an error in their code somewhere so that rather than turn a lifeless world into a playground for Herb they’ve turned a lifeless world into a seething planet-sized mass of VNMs. Even in the liberal 23rd century this is considered a tad excessive, and presages the arrival of Robert Johnston, agent of the Environment Authority, the highest power in human space. In the grand old tradition of setting a thief to catch a thief Robert induces Herb to join him in a war against a mysterious enemy who also uses VNMs..

Back in the ultimate surveillance society that is England of 2051, Eva has been plotting her own death for months, trying to outwit the suffocating hand of Social Care – a theoretically well-meaning but actually soul-destroying welfare system. Eva has had enough of being continually observed, monitored, ‘assisted’ and checked up on and is desperate to escape the life she is trapped in.

In 2119 Constantine is visiting Stonebreak, a revolutionary arcology in the Australian Outback, grown from nothing by the remarkable new VNM technology. Constantine himself is fairly unusual in that he is a high-tech ghost, one of very few who are permanently overlooked and unobserved by society and its computer systems, trained to blend in and avoid any attention. He has been sent to the remarkable Stonebreak for a meeting of a cabal that is far, far above Top Secret, and with very good reason, because the decisions they make may genuinely decide the fate of the human race.

As I mentioned, all three narratives have something in common but you’ll be fairly hard-pressed to spot exactly what it might be much before Recursion’s end, and even then they don’t so much interlock or melt into each other as sit happily side by side. Some more obvious connections between the three threads would have helped draw them together slightly more and made this a more coherent book, but all three work well enough on their own for the most part (although after a strong start Eva’s story quickly becomes the weakest).

Ballantyne also writes well enough, in a plain style perhaps (rather similar to Neal Asher, but with much less violence), but it does the job; getting us smoothly from page 1 to page 345, and doesn’t distract from the scenery and plot development going on around it. There are times when you might wish for a little more flamboyance, but perhaps you might also think that there’s really quite enough going on in Recursion anyway without the distraction of too much baroque language.

I found it a little too plain for my taste, however; there are some undeniably good parts and some interesting ideas are raised, but often they’re too briefly or incoherently dealt with so that I felt I was very much skimming over Ballantyne’s universe and the philosophy underpinning his ideas, which was a shame. However, given that this is only his first novel I think we can be cautiously optimistic about the prospects for future Ballantyne novels.

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