Wednesday, July 19, 2000

Sex, violence and sci-fi

Posted By on Wed, Jul 19, 2000 at 12:00 AM

A hypothetical: You hold in your hand two black boxes, each of which contains identical electronic information stored as ones and zeros. These bits (and bytes) add up to an artificial intelligence that the social codes of your time and place have legally deemed a person. The information in the boxes is identical – when they are asked the same questions, the same answers appear. Behavior is the same. Speech is the same. Beliefs are the same. But one is a fraud, a bogus copy of the original. You are ordered to destroy one, but you have no way to discern which is which. So the question is: Does it matter which one you destroy? And is it murder, even though each box contains the same person?

It's a knotty question, identity, and it gets more tangled every day, as cloning and genetic therapy become real possibilities. Most of the cells I was born with have divided, died, and been replaced by now. Does that make me the same person? Sure, my DNA is more or less the same as it was, but would it matter if I were exposed to a nonlethal dose of radiation that changed the code?

Evolution's Darling isn't that complicated, even as it ponders the same questions on a subtextual level, even as weighty ideas bubble up from the author's concise yet poetic prose. Scott Westerfeld's characters are more than just symbols of his weighty philosophies; each has his or her own dramatic arc and moments of glory. It's quite a feat, proof positive that a sci-fi author can build a world, create a tense storyline, and ponder imponderables without churning out sequel after sequel.

Perhaps it's not so surprising that Darling is a stunner. Westerfeld – probably one of the better writers you've never heard of – proves here that his first two science-fiction novels, Polymorph and Fine Prey, were not flukes. Darling's plot moves at light speed, lingering with main characters like the machine/AI/man Darling; his young charge Rathere; a mentally unbalanced computer called the Maker; Mira, a female assassin who has lost her memories; and a sculptor who may or may not be dead. The intersections between these folks, set on a space-opera scale, are violent--physically and mentally – and borderline brilliant. For the queasy, Darling might not be the best choice, for all its skill and panache; it's loaded with sex, violence, and torture. Anyone who enjoys thought-provoking, bleeding-edge work, however, should rush right out and wrap your hands on this book.

Adrienne Martini writes for the Baltimore City Paper, where this review first appeared. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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