Artificial Evil (Techxorcist, #1)

Artificial Evil - Colin F. Barnes

tl;dr version: Fast paced action-filled dystopian cyberpunk, well written, particularly the technological aspects. 


I totally admit I grabbed this while it was a freebie because of the spectacular cover. (I was very much reminded of an equally spectacular, if spectacularly bad '80s Australian movie called Circuitry Man - you get a cookie if you've ever even heard of that one.) The rest of this series has equally striking covers. They'd make fabulous posters actually.


No prizes for guessing the genre from the cover either, this is pure dystopian cyberpunk. A largely unexplained cataclysm has made the earth more or less unliveable, with "City Earth" the remaining safely domed city run by "The Family" via a figurehead government. At least that's what everyone thinks. Our hero Gerry discovers he's somehow been hacked, and declared winner of the "Death Lottery" and has a week to live, something he should have been exempt from as the creator of the lottery selection algorithm. Dead men have no rights, and lying beaten on the street after trying to get into his own workplace, he's picked up by a strange man who declares his code is possessed, and he needs exorcising. And it only gets weirder for Gerry after that. He discovers everything he thought he knew about his life, about his home city, and about the entire world and even humanity in general, may not be true. 



There's a lot going on here, and it's mostly fun. What place religion in an almost purely on-line world and is white hat hacking the techno equivalent of exorcising demons? At least one character thinks it is. There's also some interesting discussion on the nature of evil. Is there truly "evil" and "good" and if there is, could you program them, create them out of code and algorithms? It even delves, albeit briefly, into the nature of humanity itself. Could a programmed created entire and then "inserted" into a human body, self-aware yet unaware of its genesis, be considered a human being? Would knowing how it was created change that? However unlike some recent reads, it doesn't dwell too much on the existentialism, but rather favours the action, and there's plenty of that. I found the balance just right, but YMMV of course, and I was in the mood for an action filled kind of book.


Yet I initially gave this a 4 star rating but I am considering knocking it down to 3.5 for two reasons, those being a somewhat hard to empathise with lead character, and a crazy tacked-on feeling cliffhanger at the end.


Yes there's a lot going on here, but Gerry sails through it all peculiarly unaffected. As a plot point, it kind of makes sense, eventually, as a reader though, I found he's difficult to engage with. Every time I get a handle on him emotionally and start caring about what is happening to him, he does this "I don't have time to think about any of that emotion stuff" and gets on with the task at hand. The problem for me is the pacing is off - the first 80% or so of the book takes place over 2? maybe 3 days, in which Gerry has rather a traumatic time of it. 



Like a total recall kind of trauma (except, not just a wife, but a wife and two beloved daughters). Also that he might not actually be a real person, just an AI. Or not. He's not sure. 


He loses his entire life, gains a new one, becomes a techxorcist - a white hat hacker of "evil" AI's and viruses, apparently falls in love, makes a new best friend, is betrayed, is shot multiple times, is tortured, saves an entire civilization, possibly two, and then meets a whole lot of family he didn't know he had. I guess he's right, who has time to think about things when they're happening at that pace. 


(show spoiler)


That said I did enjoy it. It was a fast and easy read, and as a programmer, I wasn't eye rolling at the hacker tricks, and there's even a couple of in-jokes made about the overused trope (see the movie Hackers, or Swordfish or... well any movie ever) that hacking involves manipulating objects in a poorly rendered VR simulation. When faced with having to do exactly that, Gerry asks "Can't I just send some code" and his accomplice answers something to the effect "sure, but this is more fun to look at".  Whic isn't to say any of the tech in this book is current world, it's not, but the tech is handled in a way that is not only internally consistent, but doesn't read like a chef trying to write a programming manual. Or you know, me trying to write a cookbook. 


The sidekicks, Gaz and Petal are also fun, but a little flat. Gaz has almost no development, he's practically exposition man for half the book - and since there's not overly much exposition going on, he's not got much to say for a lot of pages.


But the ending takes a bit of a left turn into crazy land, and just when it's about to come to a point that would have made sense to end the book (Gerry on his way back to rescue a friend, and set his world back in order), out of nowhere, it takes another even weirder turn and out of nowhere the biggest most wtf cliffhanger ever. Aliens. Out of nowhere. Not a mention or hint of them anywhere in the book up until now, and then whoa Nelly.


To be clear, I understand this is the first of a trilogy, but there was already a natural break here. This story was wrapped up, and the next step was clear, but hadn't begun yet. The sudden spin out into real cliffhanger land really felt like a tacked on "Stay tuned for what happens next week!" sales tactic, not a natural progression of the story, and it really soured it for me. Even if it was a natural progression, it would have made a kick-ass beginning for book two - I even wouldn't have objected if it had been chapter one of book two and tacked on at the end as a teaser. True, the distinction is quite slender, but for me, quite real. It's the difference between "I know there's more parts to this" and the hard sell.


Anyway, for anyone who stuck with me this long, here's the trailer to the hilariously abysmal Circuitry Man, in all it's psychedelic 80's low budget glory: