January 27, 2015

The Risen Empire - A Book Review

Just finished reading Scott Westerfeld's The Risen Empire, the second in his Scifi Succession duology, and I have just one word to describe it: AMAZING!

The story is set far, far in the future, where technology is so advanced interstellar travel is possible, select few people can live for ever (thanks to some bio-engineering feat that requires you to die first--hence their given name: the "Risen"), and where AI is vaster and more advanced than entire worlds!

The only problem here being that AI believe in their superiority, and a schism has taken place between the Greys (or the Risen)--those who live indefinitely but are still considered 100% human--and the Rix--those who devote their lives to a super-duper-godlike AI (or Compound Mind) and are often enhanced by these as well to become more robot-like, but with amazing capabilities, like super machines.

The book goes back and forth between different characters in this world: Captain Laurent Zai who's tasked with freeing the Child Empress (the Risen Emperor's darling little sister--also a Grey) who's been taken hostage by the Rix; Nara Oxham, a human senator who's against having living dead people rule (without death there is no change), and Zai's lover; the Compound Mind that's taken over all of the computers of the planet that hosts the Child Empress; the Rix woman who's the Compound Mind's special agent on that planet; and a number of other more minor characters.

I was really awed by all the imagination that went into Westerfeld's first book. The science behind it, the complex plot, the philosophical questions it raises. I seriously recommend it to anyone and everyone who's ever had an inkling of an interest in Scifi!

And without further ado, here's an excerpt of the book, told from the point of view of the Compound Mind on Legis XV as it becomes self-conscious (a product of it taking over more and more of the computer systems and databases on the planet), the planet where the Child Empress was taken hostage:

   Existence was good. Far richer than the weak dream of shadowtime.
   In the shadowtime, external reality had already been visible, hard and glimmering with promise, cold and complex to the touch. Objects existed outside of one, events transpired. But one's self was a dream, a ghostly being composed only of potential. Desire and thought without intensity, mere conceits, a plan before it is set in motion. Even the anguish at one's own nonexistence was dull; a shadow play of real pain.
   But now the Rix compound mind was moving, stretching across the infostructure of Legis XV like a waking cat, glorying in its own realness as it expanded beyond mere program. It had been just a seed before, a kernel of design possessing a tiny mote of consciousness, waiting to unleash itself across a fecund environment. But only the integrated data systems of an entire planet were lush enough to hold it, to math its nascent hunger as it grew.
   The mind had felt this expansion before, millions of times in simulation had experienced propagation as it relentlessly trained for awakening. But experiences in the shadowtime were models, mere analogs to the vast architecture that the mind was becoming. 
   Soon, the mind would encompass the total datastores and communications web of this planet, Legis XV. It had copied its seeds to every device that used data, from the huge broadcast arrays of the equatorial desert to the pocket phones of two billion inhabitants, from the content reservoir of the Grand Library to the chips of the transit cards used for tube fares. Its shoots had disabled the shunts placed throughout the system, obscene software intended to prevent the advent of intelligence. In four hours it had left its mark everywhere.
   And the propagation seeds were not some mere virus scattering its tag across the planet. They were designed to link the mindless cacophony of human interaction into a single being, a metamind composed of connections: the webs of stored autodial numbers that mapped out friendships, cliques, and business cartels; the movements of twenty million workers t rush hour in the capital city; the interactive fables played by schoolchildren, spawning a million decision trees each hour; the recorded purchases of generations of consumers related to their voting patterns....
   That was being a compound mind. Not some yapping AI designed to manage traffic lights or zoning complaints or currency markets, but the epiphenomenal chimera that was well beyond the sum total of all these petty transactions. Only hours in existence, the mind was already starting to feel the giddy sensation of being these connections, this web, this multiverse of data. Anything less was the shadowtime.
   Yes...existence was good.
   The Rix had fulfilled their promise.
OK, so technically this image is from Star Wars, but both stories take place in galaxies far, far away, and
intergalactic traveling and all that...

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