Genesis by Geoffrey Carr (book review).

I actually bought this book at Eastercon, at a launch party put on by Elsewhen Press. When I started reading it I thought I’m glad I don’t have to review this book as I’m not really the right person for it! Because it was clear at once, even from the cover with a green hand reaching upward from a city, all composed of zeros and ones, that this revolves around computers and Artificial Intelligence (AI).

The author’s talk confirmed this. Ah, but at the top of the cover is the planet Mars…then again, maybe I am the right person. After all, how many people really do know much about computer programming, binary codes and such? I’ve been a professional artist and illustrator as well as a writer since 1965. Obviously, I started out using paints and brushes, but I bought my first Mac in 1991 and began to work digitally, at least for publishing.

Even so I knew little about bits and bytes only a bit more about pixels! But I have never written any code to produce an app as I’m happy to use off-the-shelf software like Photoshop and its peripherals. So, in short, if I enjoy this book, so should anyone else and let me say at once that I did enjoy it, greatly.

A new name to SF, so who is Geoffrey Carr? He is the Science and Technology Editor of ‘The Economist’. His professional interests include evolutionary biology, genetic engineering, the development of new energy technologies and planetology. He also loves total solar eclipses, as do I. Promising. This is his first novel, and he admits that even he is surprised to have written a ‘technothriller’.

In an interview with ‘Digital Journal’ he said, ‘The universe is made of matter, energy and information. Add information to matter and energy and you get life – and eventually, intelligence. It happened once, starting a few billion years ago, on a small planet that has come to be known as ‘Earth’. Now, one of the products of that process, human beings, seem to have started the cycle again. Instead of a chemical primordial soup, we have built a physical one, made of silicon and electricity. And we have populated it with things called ‘programs’ that sometimes appear disturbingly alive and intelligent. Of course, they aren’t really alive and aren’t really intelligent. Of course…

Famous names like Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have expressed concerns about the uncontrolled rise of AI. Unless we find out how to prepare for and avoid the possible risks that it could precipitate, it is no exaggeration to say that an ‘evolved’ form of AI could create, as Peter Buck, senior editor at ‘Elsewhen Press’ puts it, ‘the biggest existential crisis that we face, and the most pressing one.” And, ‘From his viewpoint, looking across multiple disciplines and with a global perspective, (Carr) is ideally placed to see where we could be heading.

The story is a rollercoaster ride: it starts slowly, but builds to a fast-moving and gripping climax. In chapter one, Professor Alice Rhodes, who has written a program which promises to create an actor indistinguishable from a human one, is driving out of Los Angeles when her autonomous sports car refuses to obey its controls. The throttle then the brake refuse to respond. Her speed increases until, at 150kph, she crashes. This is just the first example of computer-operated machines misbehaving and of other puzzling and increasingly worrying but apparently unrelated incidents.

Researchers, engineers and entrepreneurs are dying in seemingly in a series of accidents. It seems that somewhere, deep in the Cloud, something is watching everything and everyone. Waiting, learning and planning. More, it is interfering. But whenever intelligence analysts think they have spotted a pattern, they find themselves blocked at every turn and sometimes by those they believe to be friends, sometimes by enemies.

What could all this have to do with Mars (on the cover, remember)? Gordon Humboldt, a multi-billionaire and far-sighted inventor, dreams of turning Mars into another Earth, using AI to help him achieve this. He tries to keep this dream to himself, while being helped by one government and investigated by another and something in the Cloud is watching him, too, and planning. The manner in which all this comes together as it builds toward the climactic end of this book is masterly.

Geoffrey Carr is British, something he makes clear by having his main character occasionally correct himself mentally when in the USA by saying ‘pants’ instead of trousers or ‘elevator’ rather than lift. In fact, he seems to have an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of the USA, its cities and its ways and of digital matters. If at first you find this latter aspect a bit daunting stick with it, as I did. It is worth the effort!

David A. Hardy

May 2019

(pub: Elsewhen Press, 2019. 283 page paperback. Price: £ 9.99 (UK), €11.99 (Europe), $17.99 (US). ISBN: 978-1-91140-941-0)

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