Saturday, January 28, 2012

Prescience Fiction?

The young Friar avidly consumed science fiction novels, but being young he leaned towards some more action-oriented stuff. The measured, cerebral work of Lithuanian-born Algis Budrys didn't hold his attention, and he returned Budrys' 1977 media-centered tale Michaelmas to the library with only a chapter or two read.

Today's Friar, thanks to a trip to the superb little store Aladdin Book Shoppe, gave Mr. Budrys a second try and found him to have had more than a little prophet in him when he created the story of the famous independent investigative reporter Laurent Michaelmas, pursuing an amazing story of an astronaut's resurrection in 1999.

Michaelmas also happens to more or less rule the world through the secret artificial intelligence he calls Domino, a computer program able to spy out things in almost every corner of the world, eavesdrop on almost any conversation and control what other computers do. Using Domino's abilities and influence, he has calmed most world conflicts and brought countries to work together through the United Nations. On the eve of the millennium, the greatest achievement of his combined space agency is preparing for its launch of a manned mission to the outer planets of the solar system. But the miraculous return of the American mission commander, presumed dead in a training accident, could restart old rivalries. The Soviet Union's astronaut was elevated to command of the mission when the American died and the Soviets are unlikely to quietly accept his demotion. But a nationalist group within the U.S. may have evidence that the accident which injured the American astronaut wasn't an accident. Michaelmas must use every advantage his media celebrity and Domino can give him to find out who is behind these developments before the world resets to its Cold War footing. He also has to see where Clementine Gervaise, a video producer who strongly resembles his late wife, may fit into the situation as well as his own personal life.

Budrys does a very good job of predicting some media developments which played out in real life, such as the kind of information glut brought about by the internet and the meaningless nature of a good deal of modern news, entertainment-based and otherwise. Michaelmas and other independent reporters file their stories via personal recording/transmitting units that also gather up and play back information from other sources -- not unlike the role laptop computers and personal data pads play today. Politically, shady Gulf state oil barons fund unrest in the Middle East similarly to the way they still do today. Budrys has some misses -- having the Soviet Union still around seven or eight years after it fell, for example, and his foreseen level of technology of 1999 both undershoots the level of the actual technology of 1999 and overshoots it. Unless there really is a secret artificial intelligence named Domino hanging around in the electronosphere, in which case, howdy!

Much of the novel is made up of conversations between Michaelmas and Domino as they try to puzzle out what happened with the astronaut's return. They frequently wax philosophical, and Michaelmas' own thoughts about the world he more or less helped to make are sometimes rueful. But Budrys' rich prose and low exposition quotient reduces the boredom level of such passages considerably. Michaelmas is a short 183 pages packed with fascinating retro-speculation, food for thought and an intriguing premise. The young Friar might not have been able to keep with it when it was published, but his older counterpart found it worth the time.

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