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Is There Anybody Out There?
on 4 October 2012
Having read this, I found the blurb on the back of the book to be the most misleading I think I have ever come across. Not necessarily in a bad way, merely in that the three mysterious objects is suggests are the heart of the book, are not the central narrative drive or quest of the characters at all and are only almost incidentally explained in the very ending. Though the book has plenty of wonder, imagination and creativity in its world building, it is actually about its main characters, which can be quite refreshing in science fiction books where often the characters are dwarfed by the science.
Having said that, the characters are troubling. Humans craving to surrender their bodies to merge with quantum infinities, clones, holograms, virtual projections, artificially created lifeforms, all questing to be human, to have a real body. Yet a relative immateriality doesn't seem to prevent any of them having sex, which happens a lot. Some of them are trying to fill their personal psychological voids, some seek after love and others just wish to have a physical sensation. So in part the book is an exploration of the struggle to be human.
The book is described as space opera, a genre label I've never understood the meaning of to be honest. The space bit I get and accede as far as this book is concerned. But operatic too me suggests not only a wide sweep, which again this book effortlessly meets, but a heightened sense of emotion. Now while Harrison deals with emotion a plenty as suggested in the characters' various quests for identity and to take the form of something other than themselves, the emotional pitch is a curiously flat one. This is largely because even though Harrison's builds an immense universe, most of these characters seem to be each other in various guises, so that the total population seems only to be about five people. A character has a single emotional register in one guise, yearns to be be something different and then achieves it either by taking on a new persona and physicality, or in death. And that's that, easy peasy lemony squeezy...
Moving between two temporal eras, our own and a far future one, yet the characters are all brought together by the end and their links to one another revealed, in a rather unsatisfying manner to my mind. For a book about quantum probabilities and improbablities, the narrative structure was too hidebound to facilitate this I felt.
There are some fine writing and insights to be gleaned from this book: "Every so often her eyes went across tate with the calm contempt of one neurotic for another", but the sum of the parts add up to considerably less than the whole.