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When The Sparrow Falls by Neil Sharpson (book review)

July 19, 2021 | By | Reply More

When the artificial intelligence known as Confucius became aware in 2148, not everyone was happy. Europe and America scrambled to create their own machine advisors and share in the prosperity Confucius was bringing China. Millions of people began to spend the majority of their lives on-line. Consciousness transferral, the complete upload of a human consciousness or soul into a virtual world became commonplace everywhere, except the Caspian Republic, where the ruling party was determined to keep anything Machine out of its borders. The Republic is the last bastion of humanity against anything Machine and they will prevail. In spite of economic sanctions that try to starve them into submission, regardless of the infiltrators skulking over their borders to lure the weak into the so-called paradise of the virtual world.

Agent Nikolai South has been a State Security agent for over twenty years. He keeps his head down, makes no friends and works dogged lack of enthusiasm that prevents promotion while demonstrating his loyalty to the Party. Until he gets a new assignment, a babysitting job that will have him questioning his world and everything he believes.

The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and ‘When The Sparrow Falls’ is set in the 22nd century, but readers will find the setting very familiar. Lines of people wait, hunched against the cold to buy what little food can be found. Party politics are played for life and death stakes. People vanish, never to be seen again. Anyone could be watching and reporting on anyone else at any time or you might find it similar to George Orwell’s ‘1984’ which featured the ever vigilant Big Brother. Such is the world of our protagonist, Nikolai South, stark and lonely, even as it takes place in the middle of a city. Throughout the novel the city is an unspeaking character that impregnates the text with the grey despair of its citizens.

The Caspian Republic was founded on fear. That the three artificial intelligences now running the world bring all humanity into their Machine world and no ‘real’ humans would be left. This type of fear isn’t new in Science Fiction. There are many stories about what might happen when an artificial intelligence becomes truly conscious and they often end badly for humanity. Computer programs triggering nuclear war. Robots hunting people through the remains of cities. Robots keeping humans ‘safe’ from our own destructive urges. Humans being forcibly incorporated into various machines. In these stories there is always a valiant hero who emerges from the ruins of civilisation to raise arms against the ‘synthetic’ to preserve the ‘natural.’ But what if there isn’t a single intelligence and what if it isn’t out to get us? As we move further from simple robotic machines and into virtual assistants, the question of what happens if these workers become aware of what they are doing is becoming louder in Science Fiction. If you could put your actual self on-line and leave behind the meat and bones of your physical body, is that sending your soul online? Are you still you? Do you still get to vote, to live and to have meaning in the physical world?

Author Neil Sharpson isn’t the first to ask these questions and he probably won’t be the last. Martha Wells delves into the idea of cyborg rights in her ‘Murderbot Diaries’ series. The problems with attempting to put limits on an artificial intelligence is explored in William Gibson’s ‘Neuromancer.’ As humans increasingly live virtually in this age of Zoom I can only expect more novels to come that ask similar questions.

‘When The Sparrow Falls’ reads more as authoritarian fear than thriller or Science Fiction to me. While beautifully written and evocative, I did not feel much emotional engagement. South’s search for answers felt more of a stumble into various people who just told him chunks of information. I had no sense that he had to work for his answers. He might have sweated with nerves, perhaps, but not due to the effort of hunting clues down like a terrier. Because of this, I felt very little adrenaline or nerves on his behalf. As a character, South is so locked inside his own head that any meaningful connection is only through decades old memories which felt dusty and distant. The Science Fiction elements came across more as thought experiments rather than the lived experience of the characters and without the epigraphs that began each chapter I could easily have forgotten this novel was set in the future. ‘When The Sparrow Falls’ does inspire questions about the nature of technological advancement and the social implications with some very readable literary prose that will appeal to fans of Orwells’ ‘1984.’

LK Richardson

July 2021

(pub: TOR, 2021. 336 page hardback. Price: $29.99 (US). ISBN: 978-1-25078-421-6

check out website: www.tor.com

Category: Books, Scifi

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