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Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Review: Ghost Spin

I was all set to buy Ghost Spin, after enjoying Moriarty's previous books Spin State and Spin Control, but the Amazon reviews put me off, so I waited for the library copy. I shouldn't have waited, because the reviews are wrong and Ghost Spin is one of the best novels I've read all year.

It picks up after Spin State and Spin Control, but is a far more ambitious novel. The themes in this novel include the nature of identity (Are you your memories? Are you still you, if you can be replicated multiple times but the different versions of you have different experiences?), the nature of love and consciousness, as well as how we would treat AIs if emergent AIs truly did exist.

The novel starts with Catherine Li's AI husband, Cohen, committing suicide deliberately. His remains are (in accordance with AI traditions) are immediately auctioned off. As his widow, Catherine sets off immediately to try to recover and reconstruct her husband, but the path to doing so is filled with obstacles and she ends up scatter-casting herself through human space as well.

What makes the novel work for a computer scientist is the references scattered throughout the novel that are accurate and interesting. Moriarty clearly does her homework: references to Ada Lovelace, Alan Turing, and Lewis Carroll are all well made and taken within context. Her extrapolation on how an emergent AI would work, and how an AI could die or evolve is fascinating and interesting. For instance, something that no other AI-oriented novels ever cover is the fact that if your memory is perfect, and you were unable to truly forget, wouldn't that drive you crazy? Her characters are also worthy of being cared about, even though some of them do do despicable things. One of the main characters in the book (Captain Llewellyn) ends up having to share his brain/body with an AI, and the exploration of the themes emerge most thoroughly with the conversations he has with himself.

Where the novel fails is in plotting. I really liked the book for the first 20 minutes after putting it down, but then realized that the plot didn't make a lot of sense in retrospect. For Cohen to commit suicide doesn't make sense to me, even at the end of the novel. The big reveals in the novel, however, are very fair --- you get plenty of foreshadowing and all the clues needed to put together the reveal yourself.

This novel is not an action-packed one, especially in comparison with Spin State. A lot of the book just composes of conversations characters have between themselves or even with themselves. And the novel does have the one obvious failure. But the writing, the milieu, and the thorough exploration of fascinating AI themes are more than enough to let me overlook the failure. If you're a computer scientist who enjoys fiction this could very much be the perfect novel for you. If not, then be prepared to get a massive info dump and not quite enough context to understand fully what's going on.

Highly recommended.

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