"Recursion," by Tony Ballantyne

Pros: Fascinating and complex plot; beautifully interwoven time-period play; no easy answers
Cons: A couple of weak characters
Rating: 4 out of 5

If this is Tony Ballantyne’s debut novel, then he has quite a career ahead of him; already “Recursion” is every bit as polished as most good authors’ third or fourth offerings. But allow me to backtrack for a moment.

Intertwining Plots

Eva lives in a smothering, nanny-state society where one’s every move gets recorded and analyzed. When she purchases too much aspirin the young man behind the counter has to ask her what’s wrong. If she behaves the least bit strangely someone sits next to her on the train to chat about what might be bothering her. They’re all so concerned about her well-being—and she’s having none of it. She plans her escape, plotting out each and every step of her plan so even the ultimate nanny-state won’t be able to stop her.

Constantine lives life as a ghost, software erasing traces of his every move so that even in his restrictive society no one will notice him. His time as a ghost is coming to an end, however. He has the information he needs, carefully collected over the last couple of years, and it’s time to set his company’s final plan in motion.

Herb is convinced he’s fooled his watchful government. He knows what he’s doing is considered the worst of crimes—using small robots to terraform a planet into his own private vision of heaven—but he’s utterly convinced of his skill and unwilling to consider the possibility of failure. Yet fail he does, and his little robots go horribly wrong, destroying the planet instead of transforming it. A government agent offers him an alternative to imprisonment—he can help to save the world from a terrible enemy that threatens it. Of course, nothing about this battle is quite what it seems.

Three separate time periods. Three different lives. Three people whose interactions with an entity known only as the Watcher will shape their society for decades, perhaps centuries, to come.

Today

Against the backdrop of today’s world, in which governments become ever more intrusive into our daily lives and computer-based observation of our actions runs rampant, Ballantyne’s vision of the future definitely hits home. Yet “Recursion” is hardly a ham-handed allegory; it has relevance to today’s issues yet tells its own story. Nor do its characters face easy choices; it’s often hard to tell what the “right” path to take is, and Eva, Constantine and Herb, much like real people, often have to cross their fingers and pray they’ve made the right choices.

The plot is intricate and delicately woven across the three time periods. Setting a story in multiple time periods is extremely tricky, and risks causing those stories set in older times to feel irrelevant or unnecessary. Neither is the case here; Ballantyne does an extraordinary job of making each story important, revelatory, and fascinating, as well as necessary to understanding the other characters and events in the book.

The Writing

The writing is lean and precise; most of the characters (particularly Eva, Constantine, and the Watcher) are fascinating and their stories amazing. I loved unraveling the events of this book. It walked a good line between explaining enough that the reader could keep up, yet not so much that it felt dumbed-down.

My only problem with this book is the third story. The story itself is quite interesting, but the characters of Herb and Robert (Herb’s government-provided companion) are both a bit flat, particularly early on. Herb is one of the least-developed of the book’s major characters, which is a bit odd since he’s billed as its main character. Constantine and Eva were interesting enough to largely make up for that, but it is an unfortunate flaw in an otherwise amazing book. Still, as I said, it’s Ballantyne’s first novel, and that this is the only real flaw in it is quite impressive. I can see why he did it this way—Herb does change and grow over the course of the book, after all—but he still needed to start off with more of a hook to make him compelling. At first I found myself looking forward to getting back to Eva and Constantine’s stories as I read Herb’s.

 

This is a fascinating book that mixes hard science fiction with interesting philosophical questions and quite a few unusual characters, and I definitely believe it’s worth a read if that’s what you’re looking for. I’m looking forward to further books from Ballantyne!

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