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Capacity   by Tony Ballantyne

Read: 2006-08-09 Reviewed: 2007-06-16
Re-read factor:
This book uses a lot of science ideas which are very contemporary to the 20th century: von Neumann machines, Schroedinger cubes; maybe this work will age quite quickly.

A word the author likes to use a lot is anthropomorphic. This is very much a book about an anthropomorphic future; Tony has written a number of articles for Interzone, and this magazine seems to have influenced him rather a lot as it is the type of work seen there. I do hope this is not going to become a trend in British science fiction, bcause I would rather see more direct technology than this, and Interzone would have a lot to answer for!

That said, the story is excellent, although the title of the book is a bit of a spoiler as the crux of the issue seems to be that the system supporting life in the universe is running at capacity!

The book revolves around two concepts. A futuristic society in which a few people live in the atomic (real) world, and many more, including parallel clones of the real people, live as detached souls in processing spaces (computers). There is a supreme being (the Watcher) and an agency which deals in draconian fashion with society's errants. Some souls are captured in private spaces and tortured, raped, etc.

The second concept is an alien invasion from a neighbouring galaxy which threatens to destroy humanity. This is a planet which exists at the quantum level, and depends upon human observation to fix it in place, and to cast it into a state of progressed development. Thus, the planet feeds off human intelligence.

The story revolves arond the fact that there was once a mission to investigate the alien species, but it failed and the operatives went underground. However, one of the crew had a private processing space in which he tortured, raped, etc, a woman. Seventy years later copies of the woman are still around, and the Watcher and his agents use the clones to track down one of the original operatives. p>It is a very intelligent story, and the futuristic environment is introduced well and the reader gets to feel like they understand it through first-hand experience. The plot is wound together as a set of tight threads -- it is right on the edge of this reviewer's ability to keep track of them all -- which makes the opening and middle sections a hugely enjoyable read.

The reader then expects the threads to be neatly unwound and then connected, but the ending turns out to be quite messy. It is essentially a showdown between all of the characters, but becomes contorted with lots of political philosophy and artificially-induced dream sequences. People start to question their own alignments, and then you lose track of who is with who.

It is fabulously clever, contains just the right amount of science, characters, confusion, mayhem and surprises. One thing which I really like about it is that some things which are introduced as possible dubious plot-constructs at the beginning turn out to be just what they are. For example, you expect a big reveal at the end where the Watcher is identified as a fraud. But it turns out that he really is the supreme being.

One little criticism I do have is that, despite a certain amount of blood and gore, all of the main characters ultimately refuse to die -- they walk away from the carnage and get to live another day. Good for a sequel for sure, but leaves the present book feeling a little unbalanced and unjust.

I think I might have just discovered my new favourite author!

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