Eric S. Nylund,
Signal to Noise
(Avon Books, 1998)

Meet Jack. Twenty years before his birth, vast geological disturbances left the surface topography of the world completely altered. (For example, the West Coast was submerged, and all that remained of Mexico was a chain of volcanic islands.) From this cataclysm a new civilization emerged, into whose mean streets Jack was born. But Jack fought his way up and out so that we meet him as he battles a rival academic for tenure at an elite university. Pretty tame stuff you might think. Think again, the world of Eric S. Nylund's novel Signal to Noise is anything but tame. The parts of the Old world that persevered into the New were mostly the bad bits.

The economic system polarizes society into an elite at the top and wage slaves at the bottom -- the rule is survival of the fittest few. Cities, not countries, are the political centers, and corporations, not governments, wield power ruthlessly to their own advantage. This is the 21st century world Jack inhabits, and his specialty, cryptography, means that he has had many opportunities to help those in power to stay there, participating in many financially rewarding but legally questionable projects.

But the world possesses another important attribute, "bubble" virtual technology, whereby implanted hardware circuits intimately entwine those of the living brain and interact with surrounding computer circuits (the bubble) to generate coherent, meaningful illusions that encompass the full human sensorium. By "interfacing," many individuals may share and interact within a common virtual reality. The advantage of all this is that it enables people to quickly, efficiently process and assimilate large chunks of data at the intuitive, conceptual and subconscious levels. However, events prompt Jack to wonder which of his perceptions is real and which illusion, and indeed whether anything is real. The ubiquity of the virtual in the lives of the novel's characters explains much about the way they think and react to events. It explains, for example Jack, and his friend Isabel's response when they make humankind's first contact with an extraterrestrial intelligence. They are nonplussed, as if their communication with an alien were just another piece of highly unusual, interesting data which swam into their consciousness from the depths of the mind/machine interface. But with this alien, Wheeler, reality comes knocking on Jack and the world's door with a vengeance.

The description of Jack's attempt to meet Wheeler face to face in virtual reality is typical of Nylund's accomplished exploitation of the imaginative and narrative possibilities offered by the technology: Wheeler preempts Jack's choice of setting so that Jack finds himself in a small, dimly lit cubicle; a shutter slides across and a shadowy figure sits behind a grille; the words "bless me father for I have sinned" are intoned. Superb.

After the First Contact the plot moves swiftly. By trading with Wheeler, Jack gains advanced alien technology with which he begins, with Isabel and partners, to make a killing in the corporate world. Mixed in with these events are such things as mutually antagonistic agents from a now regionalized and isolationist China, local heavies in the employ of the National Security Office, corporate boardroom intrigue and barely controllable alien technologies (including biotechnology). On top of all this is the realization that Wheeler is not all that he seems and that Jack has unwittingly signed humankind up to a game of interstellar hardball.

So Signal to Noise is a dystopian virtual reality thriller, and a good one. But it is interesting also for the insight it displays into the technology-dictated mindset of its characters, where everything ("reality") is perceived as merely software and thus capable of being molded, changed and when necessary completely rewritten. A claim often made for science fiction is that it is prophetic, and Nylund's novel may well qualify in this regard, not for the way it illustrates the truism that any civilization's defining technology greatly influences the dominant mode of thought, but rather for showing the inherent dangers in pursuing a particular computer-orientated mode, a mode differing perhaps only in degree from the one dominant in the world today.

But there is yet more to Signal to Noise. Although the pace is, as I've mentioned, fast and furious, it is perhaps worth pausing to consider the technology which enables much of the novel's plot. The implants and their consequences for the characters are not some crude plot device (a "holodeck"), but a valid SF extrapolation. In the 1950s the Montreal neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield electrically stimulated small discreet areas of his patients' cerebral cortex. With these single crude probes patients had hallucinatory experiences, often of very specific events ("I hear people laughing -- two cousins, Bessie and Ann Wheliaw"). Exchange Penfield's simple probe for an embedded and interactive one which is also supported by enormous digital processing power, and what may well result are virtual experiences like those described for the characters in this novel.

Signal to Noise is memorable on many counts -- for the imagery and metaphors of the virtual worlds, for the well realized futuristic technology (both human and alien), and not least for the character of Jack. Jack is very human (he agonizes over whether he is or is not in love with Isabel), and tries to maintain intact his moral sense of right and wrong while dealing with humans and aliens whose agenda leaves no room for such considerations. How does he (and the world) fare in the end? I recommend you find out.

[ by Conor O'Connor ]

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