Title: Beautiful Intelligence
Author: Stephen Palmer
Publisher: infinity plus
Quotation: “For the nexus was heavy. It bore down on humanity, never sleeping, spying into every crevice – no respecter of privacy, which was a ridiculous, old-fashoned concept anyway.”
One of the many things I enjoyed about this dystopian novel was its pacing, which manages somehow to be ponderous and frenetic at the same time. Palmer’s examination of the different potential pathways for creating sentient machines, and his wider meditations on environmental collapse, on the perils of religion and on the consequences of the modern networked life as an over-sharing cult of extrovert personality are thoughtfully rendered, expressed in passionate terms that could feel overly didactic if they weren’t constantly interrupted by the pure adrenalin rush of the book’s many heart-thumping chase scenes. It’s a great mix of deliberation and danger.
This duality permeates the whole book. Palmer’s tone mixes the colloquial and the clinical while his narrative flits between two fugitive researchers, each employing different strategies not only to create a sentient machine intelligence but also to evade recapture by their former employer…
Leonora Klee and her entourage are seeking to create the kind of artificial intelligence that is probably most familiar to robot narrative aficionados: a single humanoid android with a quantum computer for a brain. Her strand of the narrative examines the role of language in the development of consciousness and age-old question of the line between reality and simulation. Are the human-like gestures made by her android, Zeug, really evidence of his individuated social consciousness, or just a parrot-like repetition? These are hardly new questions but the unique circumstances of Leonora’s team, and of Palmer’s dystopian world-building, provide a veneer of freshness and a engaging degree of urgency.
The ”AI” team, as they are dubbed, are on the run from Leonora’s powerful former employer, Aritomo Ichikawa of Ichikawa Laboratories who does not want to lose control of her potentially lucrative creation. To truly vanish in today’s networked society would be a tall order but in Beautiful Intelligence, Palmer takes this sense of surveillance and turns it up to 11. Set sometime in the 22nd century the world of this novel is one where augmented reality has risen fast against a backdrop of “real life” environmental and social collapse. The eastern originated “nexus” has superseded the internet, dominating every day life and bringing with it notions of a more collective social consciousness:
Any kid aged about fourteen or less was a child of augmented reality, half real, half virtual, But Dirk, almost forty, remembered what it was like to walk solo. Nakedness is a virtue, the wise ones used to say.
To evade capture, the researchers must maintain an exhausting state of hyper-vigilance, physically and virtually. Each team employs a security expert (Hound and Pouncey, two of the most interesting characters in the book) who work to create fake nexus presences for the teams, covering their real tracks and living offline as much as possible. This could be a high-tech cyber-thriller but the advanced technology of the nexus, and of the two teams’ endeavours, is tempered by the much cruder, grittier business of survival in a ravaged, post-oil society:
Travel in Britain was difficult. Only Germany has been worse hit by the Depression. Overcrowded, importing too much its food, urbanised to the max and riven with strife, it declined like America, violently. With fuel impossible to obtain and a poor energy infrastructure it descended into semi-chaos, voyeuristically staring at its own demise through countless sensational nexus broadcasts.
Solar is the main energy source now, creating an alarming and extremely timely and politically on-point inversion of the currently fraught climate here in Europe. The rise of solar has made Africa the resource power-house and as Leonora’s team make their way through southern Europe to Northern Africa alongside hordes of refugees whose transient status makes it easier to hide the team’s own movements from the nexus. It’s one of the most powerful scenes in a book that’s actually pretty crammed with memorable moments.
So far I’ve focused on Leonora’s journey, largely because the more familiar content of her AI endeavours makes it easier to jump off and talk about Palmer’s wide world-building. Yet, as its title implies, the novel really belongs to Manfred Klee, Leonora’s former partner and colleague, now turned scientific rival and the parallel fugitive. The machine sentience pursued by Manfred and his followers – the “BI” (Beautiful Intelligence) team is strikingly different. Manfred has created the Bis: a group of rainbow-coloured beings who look like something out a TV show beloved of toddlers and stoners (I couldn’t help thinking of something like Boohbar as I was reading!) Manfred hypotheses that the Bis will raise each other to consciousness through their group interactions: “Beautiful Intelligence exists in society and nowhere else.”
I found it fascinating to follow the fate of Manfred’s creations. The BI team are in America, making their way across the “empty gulf” of the country’s interior while trying to cover their tracks in both the wilderness and in the nexus. The danger, hiding and sense of rootlessness consistently conflicts with the kind of safe learning environment the team want to provide for their Bis, resulting in an accelerated education with results ranging from poignant and funny to tragic. The Bis may hold a mirror up to human society but, we are consistently reminded, they are utterly unique. One of the things I really enjoyed was the way Manfred’s team struggle to agree how to interact with the group they have created. With their candy colours and newborn naivety, the obvious impulse is to infantilise them. But as any reader of Lord of the Flies will know, a society of children need not be a benign one.
Robot-focused fiction has produced plenty of slow-paced thought provoking novels. After all, artificial intelligence is a theme uniquely suited to big, ponderous questions about the nature of selfhood. Robots have also inspired more than their fair share of pounding action sequences, but it’s a rare treat to find a work that combines the two modes quite as well as Beautiful Intelligence does. The chases and escapes – both cyber and physical – kept me turning the pages, but it has been the bigger questions around society and consciousness, as well as Palmer’s alarmingly plausible vision of the future that have lingered on my mind since I finished reading.
Both Leonora and Manfred struggle at times with the feeling – both euphoric and troubling – that they have created something far bigger than they can articulate. The same could be perhaps be said of this novel as a whole. The power of action sequences can so easily be numbed by repetition. At 330 pages this is hardly a long book and though Palmer wisely ends his story before its tone of high octane pursuit overstays its welcome, I was left feeling like I wanted to see so much more, not only of the titular Bis but of the surprisingly colourful and vibrant dystopian world that has created them. I particularly hoped to see more of Palmer’s Africa but unfortunately – and this is my only real criticism of the book – Leonora’s story tails off about three quarters of the way through. Zeug’s arc is complete enough but the wider environments the AI team traverse feel like the tantalising starter to a main course that never arrives. There’s no doubt that Manfred’s work is the most unusual and fascinating aspect of the story, but in a novel so concerned with duality and contrasting visions, the premature termination of Leonora’s narrative strand does feel a little jarring.
There isn’t a direct sequel hook here (thank goodness, nothing frustrates and ruins immersion like an all-too obviously signposted sequel hook) but this is certainly a world that could support further tales. So I was pleased to find that Palmer has penned a short novel follow up, No Grave For a Fox, which promises to return not only to the abruptly abandoned setting of his imagined Africa, but to the most compelling and unresolved consequences of Manfred’s experiment. So that one’s on my to be read list now. And if you enjoy your “what if” robot fiction alongside a hearty dose of “whoah, run, now” then I’d recommend adding Beautiful Intelligence to your list too.
Next time on Robo Reads: R reviews The Mad Scientist’s Daughter by Cassandra Rose Clarke