Technogenesis - Syne Mitchell

You guess right, it's another review for Usenet (or see Google's archive).

Syne Mitchell
Roc publishers
ISBN: 0451458648 (Amazon link)

Summary: Slick, well-written, but cold and ultimately forgettable near-future SF about a world dominated by the emergent properties of the global internet. She can write, but this is a disappointing novel. C+.

I don't normally review novels I didn't enjoy reading - usually I can't muster the enthusiasm to talk about something lacklustre. (It's different when the novel is a stinker, and it's fun to eviscerate it of course.) Technogenesis isn't a stinker. It's decently written, has a swiftly moving plot, adequate characters, a solidly constructed world - and I really didn't think much of it. It read like a well worked up TV script, or an idea adapted from a decent-budget-but-straight -to-video 'SF thriller'. It's a pity; the author can write, and write well on a page-by-page level. However, everything written only moves the plot along, and while my eye was devouring pages, nothing much was happening for my brain or heart to worry about. This is the written equivalent of glossy TV, with fantastic visuals and direction hiding a weak script.

I think my main problem lay in (a) the central idea being, well, dumb (b) the plotting being driven by improbable characters and (c) the lack of adequately involving human interest plotlines. Actually, written like that it seems I disliked this novel more than I thought!

It's the near future. Everyone is connected all the time. The net is all pervasive, and everything is mediated through it. Everything. Opening your door, making coffee, turning the lights on etc. People wear data-jewellery, or higher data flow masks for work reasons. Jasmine Reese, our heroine, is a data miner by trade. She's is also, conveniently, a 'natural', someone who has a natural affinity for the dataflows, which makes her very good at her job. In some ways, this can be read as mystic ability; she can split her conscious self into many parts, can follow multiple conversations at once, and is very aware of her own inner self and how she perceives the world.

The novel starts well, but again, as I said above, it struck me as a primarily visual affair, a movie idea. Jasmine's mask at work, an "Intel Quantum IV" breaks down. She can't get a replacement immediately, and has to make do with a clunky pair of sunglasses, with a HUD and a microphone. She tries to work with the reduced interface, has problems, ends up with a headache, slams the crappy glasses on her desk in a fit of pique, and gets sent home by her boss for a holiday until her mask comes back. Naturally, her loaner rig is now broken, and poor Jasmine has problems getting home on the bus, opening her apartment door, turning on the lights, making coffee, or even opening her wardrobe. All very slickly told and all very annoying to read... Why?

This section is nicely done after all; I admired the crisp writing, the way the author didn't have to infodump, but showed us a nicely constructed scene ... but I was starting to get annoyed even this early on. Why did her boss send her home? Why couldn't she get a rig sooner? If she's so valuable as an employee there will be other gear in the lab or coming quickly on the support contract. Why is her apartment so fully automated? This is the near future. I don't know about US readers, but I'm living in an old building, and don't, and never will, buy the idea that we can live in buildings so highly automated that we can't turn the lights on without a computer mediated interface. It's expensive, it's awkward, we have these little things called fire regulations - all that and basic common sense. And an automated wardrobe? Neato - but it actually worked against my sense of willing disbelief.

The "I can't live without a net connection" card was overplayed. Right, this is a minor weakness, I've accepted more to get into a novel before. Let's move on. (No, I can't leave it! Do people wear this stuff on the loo, in the shower? In the gym? In bed? Does no-one play real sport anymore? If my life was so connected that my physical, sensual being and senses were secondary to me, why the heck would I still commute to work in an office?)

So, Jasmine is having a bad day, and is living without her net connection for the first time in her life. While disconnected, she feels like one of society's rejects - Jasmine is sitting outside an electronics store, waiting for it to open (naturally opening hours for physical shopping are reduced, why not just buy online?) and the author introduces the new underclass. These aren't drunks, these are just people for whom a net connection doesn't work. Jasmine watches them, watches the crowd. She notes that the crowd is focused on their interior worlds, and as a joke goes around email (as it were) she sees the crowd react as one, laughing at nothing. She finds this spooky, seeing the gestalt being react to something unseen. Soon, she notes other differences, and starts stepping out in front of people. They don't get annoyed for long; one of the bums explains to her that people don't stay annoyed for long, and tells Jasmine that the Beast is watching her now. Jasmine freaks, seeing the controlling mind of the crowd watching her through individual eyes now that she's cut off.

Or is she just going paranoid? It happens when you disconnect after long periods on-line. It's normal. Or so says the literature. Except that Jasmine now can't find anything on-line about NEGATIVE connection effects - using the public library's old-fashioned physical terminals. Indeed, as she reads, articles vanish from the underlying database... See? There it is again, the ugly bump of silly plotting. It gets better. The thing that tripped me up completely and prevented me from buying to this novel is that connected people leak unconscious thoughts. Emotions, idle thoughts, they all leak out. I don't know about you, but I can't imagine public transport working with that going on...

So, the plot progresses. Jasmine tries to persuade some trusted friends to disconnect, tries to discuss with them whether being connected has an soporific, calming effect, whether there could be Something manipulating people through the net. Some go along with this, some resist. Some agree, and on a trip to the mountains, a disconnected camping trip, things come to a head. Minor spoilers - after one of her friends reveals he's brought his laptop and has connected Jasmine panics, thinking The Beast will now find her. It does. There is a X-Files type plot leap here, with Jasmine being inducted into a secret organisation where she learns that there is indeed an emergent AI living in the net. From there, it's a plot involving the father of the net, who is now living in a secretive campus, disconnected from the net, and working on Something Worrying. He knows about Gestalt, and Jasmine is to go find out what he is doing. Cue lots of paranoia, playing the double-cross etc.

I wanted to like this book, I did. It's very well written in some ways, but the cliched plot, and the clumsy love interest (she, of course, is assigned a cocky spy-buddy, whom she hates on first sight, but then falls
for etc. Oh, and he's a top notch cracker. Naturally.) put me right off. I didn't think much of the plot resolution either; it's tidy, but frankly, I couldn't really have cared.

Syne Mitchells has promise, but needs Something More. This is slick, commercial, and not a great read. I might pick up a novel by her in the future, because if she writes something a little less like a TV special, and with more to say, it might be very good indeed. However, Technogenesis is strictly mid-list material.

Posted: Mon - June 2, 2003 at 11:30 PM