3.5 out of 5 stars
Cut to the Chase:
In this near-future, posthuman, artificial intelligence detective thriller, the protagonists transverse a world fractured by the emergence of artificial realities and arcane laws relating to the rights of sentient intelligences in the attempt to uncover the identity of the one responsible for a multiple homicide of the same individual. As this description might suggest, this novel attempts to grapple with some weighty moral and political issues in combination with a very complicated setting and intricate plot. I liked the book a great deal, but I think that maybe the author was trying to do a bit too much all at once. I can’t point to any one fault that undermines the work as a whole, but the overall feeling I left with was that the author was a bit scattered in what he was trying to do. Despite this shortcoming, and a very unsatisfactory conclusion which presumably will be solved by the sequel, Reality 36 is really hard sci-fi at its best and most complicated and I would definitely recommend it to any hard sci-fi fan.
Richards and Klein, a super powerful AI and his ex-military cyborg partner, run a successful detective agency that contracts out to various extra-national entities. When a world famous advocate of rights for all sentient intelligences is murdered, Richards and Klein are called into action to solve a crime with worldwide implications and track down a criminal who has technology from the future.
The initial premise of the Reality 36 setting is quite imaginative and engaging. The setting is based on humans’ will creating artificial intelligences that surpass our own capabilities and are utilized for a variety of tasks. Some time later, a literal digital revolution occurs, and the now sentient AIs gain full human rights and the world is suddenly populated by sentient and fully autonomous citizens inhabiting the bodies of elevators and forklifts and such. The more advanced AIs inhabit centralized and very well protected cores from which they project their intelligence into vehicles or robotic simulacrums in order to interact with others and their environment. There seemed to be an unaddressed issue of lack of sufficient bandwidth and overabundance of latency for a super intelligent AI to effectively interact with the physical environment in real time, but maybe this issue is addressed in the sequel.
Speaking of sequels, I found the conclusion very unsatisfying. I wouldn’t exactly call it a cliffhanger, because that would imply that the story felt like it was near a defining moment of peril wherein a resolution to the conflicts presented in the story might be found. The ending of Reality 36 instead creates an entirely new problem unrelated to anything raised in rest of the book that dwarfs the scope of the entire narrative, so much so that it seems trivial by comparison. It would be like if you were watching an episode of Scooby-Doo and when the heroes unmasked the hokey, small-time villain who wanted to convince people the disco was haunted so he could buy it cheaply, the villain suddenly revealed that he had infected everyone in the world with a deadly virus that would end all life on Earth in 3 days. The ending is bad because there isn’t any sense of resolution, and the sudden shift in tone both is disconcerting and renders everything else that has happened somewhat meaningless.
Luckily, the rest of book is quite good. The setting is well crafted and believable, the characters are quite strong considering that this is hard sci-fi, and the story moves along well so as to make you feel like you aren’t being rushed but still moves quickly enough that you don’t get bored. The author switches character perspective frequently, but each character’s viewpoint is unique and engrossing enough that I at no time felt lost or annoyed that I had to return to the perspective of a character that I found dull or odious.
Comparisons to Other Authors:
Reality 36 for some reason felt a bit like Ian M. Banks’ high concept hard sci-fi culture series to me, even though with the exception of the near omnipotent AIs the settings are very different. This is a bit odd to me given that I like this book a great deal but I have never been able to get that excited about any of Ian M. Banks’ books, even though I recognize that they are very good. I guess if I had to pick one I would suggest Player of Games as something someone who liked Reality 36 and wanted to try Ian M. Banks’ books might like.