Sarah Zettel,
Fool's War
(Aspect, 1997)

In the course of only the first chapter of Fool's War, author Sarah Zettel does a competent and workmanlike job of building a universe for her characters to inhabit. It is an elaborate construct in which humanity has spread out from Earth to the stars, bringing with it all the cultural, religious and ethnic diversity and divisions of that planet.

The whole of this diaspora trades and communicates by means of machines possessing Artificial Intelligence (AIs), and linked by a communications network which spans interstellar space. However, history, physics and economics dictate that large quantities of information be moved from one place in Settled Space to another by means of faster-than-light (FTL) spaceship, the FTL communication net being too expensive to use for bulk transmissions. The captain of one such data cargo ship, the Pasadena, is Katmer Al Shei -- engineer, wife, mother and devout Muslim. Her newest crewmember, Evelyn Dobbs, the Fool of the title, belongs to the Guild of Fools, entertainers and morale builders for crews on long voyages. Katmer, along with her long-serving crew, and Dobbs (who is herself already part of a benign conspiracy) are destined to get enmeshed in a conspiracy involving a newly self-aware AI, a conspiracy whose unravelling will take humanity to the threshold of war and beyond.

Highly complex machines which, on reaching some critical mass, obtain consciousness, are not new in SF (for example the angelic Jane in Orson Scott Card's Speaker for the Dead). Here also such life forms come into being spontaneously and randomly, but there is a difference. Newly self-aware, they become consumed by fear -- fear of the surrounding cyberspace that they find themselves in, and also of the humans who try to destroy what is perceived as a new computer virus. The consequence of this is firstly the irreparably crashing of vast computer systems integral to human survival, followed inevitably by death and destruction on a planetary scale.

The novel's plot builds inexorable to the penultimate chapter titled "War." Throughout there are the twists and turns one might expect, and it adds an extra dimension that many of these are also heavily ironic. Such discoveries are best made and enjoyed by the reader first-hand, nevertheless it is possible to say without giving anything away that much of the action occurs within the cyberspace of the communications net itself where character's minds play an elaborate and deadly game of cat-and-mouse against AIs, viruses, diagnostic programs and other minds. The author's admirable powers of description and exposition brilliantly convey the complexities both of this arena and the action within it.

Fool's War is an SF thriller, but like any good book its essence cannot be captured by any single categorization. For example, as the Pasadena readies for departure we see its captain obey the strictures of her religion -- keeping her face veiled, using her prayer mat at timed intervals during each day, working out in which direction Mecca might lie when they are in flight. And this is not merely empty ritual, religion is the mainspring of Katmer Al Shei's character. To the Western reader it might at first appear that having such a protagonist is merely straining for novelty. This, however, is not the case. When a Freer pilot is hired for the voyage we are introduced to someone whose beliefs encompass the interaction of transmigrating human souls and AIs. Having gotten to know Al Shei the reader is more appreciative of what a strange and powerful force religion is in human affairs, and so is more receptive to Freer beliefs and less likely to dismiss them as "silly." Thus, like much SF, Fools War, in contemplating the future shows us the present more clearly.

[ by Conor O'Connor ]

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