Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Review - Sunrise Alley by Catherine Asaro

Short review: An evil genius creates the next stage in human evolution.

Is Turner human?
That is the question for Sam
If she falls in love

Full review: Sunrise Alley is a near future cyberpunkish romance featuring cybernetics expert Samantha "Sam" Bryton and recently dead human-machine hybrid Turner Pascal as the focal couple. The story follows two broad and mostly intertwined plots, the first involving Turner's flight from and conflict with the shadowy villain Charon, and the second involving Sam and Turner's budding romance which is complicated by the fact that Turner may not be human, and at many turns clearly does not behave like a human, points that are clearly difficult ones for Sam to overcome. Connecting the two plots is the question of whether Turner is a human or a machine - is he merely property, as Charon regards him, or is he a sentient and free-willed individual with the right to be treated as such, as Turner himself insists.

The story starts with Bryton living in semi-isolation in her cabin and its beach front property, having given up a high paying job as a developer of AIs and EIs ("Artificial Intelligences" which are capable of independent thought, but are not sentient, and "Emerging Intelligences", which are independent and at least plausibly sentient) over ethical concerns. While she is walking on her beach, a half-dead unconscious man washes by, who she promptly rescues. She quickly learns his name is Turner Pascal, and he was not merely half-dead, but he had recently recovered from being wholly dead. And then she learns that he was reconstructed as a cyborg human-machine hybrid by an insane and cruel genius Pascal can only identify as Charon, and that Turner intentionally sought Sam out after escaping from his imprisonment because she had been publicly sympathetic to the rights of EIs in the past.

But Turner insists that he is neither an AI or an EI, and is not a human-form android, or, in the vernacular of the story, a "forma", but is rather a human and fully entitled to all of the rights of a human. After some negotiating, Sam agrees to try to get Turner to safety and first contacts an academic friend of hers with expertise in EIs as well as an Air Force General who has been a kind of surrogate father to her after her own father's death and who happens to be in a command of the Air Force that is tasked with dealing with issues related to artificial intelligence. But no sooner than they leave to travel to the airport in Sam's souped up car, but they find themselves pursued by unknown forces, presumably working at the behest of Charon, who Turner is convinced can track the entire world "mesh" (a sort of advanced form of internet that permeates the daily lives of just about everyone on the planet) and thus was able to locate him as soon as Sam began making calls about him. Much of the tension in the book is driven by the unknown nature of Charon - neither Turner nor Sam know who Charon is (in fact, Sam has never heard of him, which surprises those she comes into contact with, and becomes a minor, although not very convincing plot point later in the book), and neither know exactly how long his reach is. Because of this, Sam and Turner never know who to trust, as anyone they try to seek aid from could be the nefarious Charon, even those that Sam thinks are her closest friends.

Though Charon is a background menace for much of the book, lurking in the shadows and operating through others, it is his relationship with Turner, contrasted with the developing relationship between Turner and Sam that drives the interesting question of the book. Turner is legally dead. Much of his body has been replaced by cybernetics. His vastly increased power needs are satisfied with an implanted microfusion reactor. His brain has been replaced by a distributed network of neural circuitry. In short, just about the only parts of Turner that remain "Turner" from before his death are his memories. So the obvious dilemma is how much of a man can be replaced before he is no longer a person? Charon seems to consider Turner to be property, whereas Sam in interacting with Turner comes to regard him as not merely a person, but as a potential partner. The only real weakness in this storyline is that Sam's infatuation with Turner seems somewhat less than convincing - other than the fact that Sam thinks Turner is pretty, and he makes for a fascinating science project for her, there seems to be little connection on a romantic level between the two characters.

And in a world in which we can already implant devices to keep our hearts going, and replace lost limbs with electronic ones responsive to nerve impulses these sorts of questions are likely to loom large. I have no idea if we will ever be able to replace a human brain with a copy that has been placed into some sort of computer driven memory, but it is not entirely implausible. And then those who believe in qualia or other theories of transcendent consciousness will have the dilemma of whether someone whose claim to identity rests upon the stored memories of a person is still that person, or whether something irreplaceable was lost in the transition from biological machine to electronic machine. And of course, that's exactly the situation Turner is in Sunrise Alley. Complicating matters is the fact that in the transformation Turner has acquired some decidedly non-human characteristics: He is able to transform himself, and goes so far as to reform his hand into an eight-fingered metal interface early in the book. But this change is only the outward manifestation of what is a more significant change - Turner chose to reform his hand into an eight digit member because he was more comfortable thinking in hexidecimal. Over and over again the change in Turner is highlighted, and throughout Turner insists that he is still himself despite these changes.

The story draws the reader along, exposing the changes in Turner step by step, peeling back each layer of the differences between Turner and a natural human progressively. And each step of the way Asaro reveals just enough to allow Bryton (and thus the reader) to become comfortable with the idea that despite his changed nature Turner is still human. Eventually, Turner and Bryton seek refuge with "Sunrise Alley", a mythic organization of escaped and "free" EIs, bringing them into an environment made by machines for machines, with no reference to any human concerns, extending the question of what constitutes a person to its furthest possible point. But even this refuge is fraught with danger, both because it is possible that it exists merely as a front for the evil Charon, and because even if it is not, a paranoid inhuman intelligence afraid of being discovered may not be kindly disposed to the human Bryton and the presumed human Turner. But at the same time, the story makes the case for even this possibly malignant, completely machine driven intelligence, being a sentient being that should be treated as a person.

The story progresses towards its multiple resolutions - Charon is confronted, Sam and Turner's nascent relationship develops, the question of Turner's status is brought to the fore, as is the status of the now-revealed Sunrise Alley. And each of these elements intertwines with the other, some in interesting ways: Charon's claims to ownership of Turner are somewhat ironic given the revelations of Charon's own nature that come to light. And Turner's claims to autonomy and personhood form a stark contrast to Charon's - while Turner shows he can at least manifest the appearance of empathy and love, Charon seems to be incapable of either, raising the obvious question of which one is more human. But even after the thriller portion of the plot is resolved, the characters don't ride off into the sunset to a happy ending - Asaro then brings the very real questions concerning the legal status of the characters into focus.

Sunrise Alley is an interesting look at the nature of what makes someone human. Exactly how much of a person can be replaced and have the result still be regarded as that person? With the exception of the somewhat weak nature of the romantic storyline and a wholly unconvincing and mostly extraneous memory-loss subplot that crops up late in the book, the book is well-executed, with a strong story full of intrigue, dramatic tension, and a fascinating exploration of what counts as human, or more broadly, what counts as a person.

Subsequent book in the series: Alpha

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