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Book cover art by Stephen Hickman (left); Darrell K. Sweet (right).
Review © 1997 by Thomas M. Wagner.

"The planetismal began as a region of above-average density that occured by chance in a swirling cloud of dust and gas condensing out of the expanding vastness of space." Yup, no doubt about it, folks; with an opening sentence like that, you've just bitten into some hard SF. Just remember to chew each bite 32 times, and you won't choke.

It's an amusing conceit to think that The Two Faces of Tomorrow would be the sort of novel Michael Crichton might write were it not for the fact Crichton makes so much goddamn money writing the stuff he actually does. But once one gets accustomed to the technical exposition, which is really presented much more clearly for the lay reader than initial impressions might allow, one finds that a James Hogan novel is essentially the same sort of high-concept technothriller that Crichton has so masterfully dumbed down for the JFK-to-LAX bestseller audience. Hogan, however, is just so much truer to his tales' scientific roots, without losing a shred of his capacity for drama; ergo, Hogan's simply a hell of a lot more rewarding.

Set in roughly the mid-21st century, Two Faces chronicles the exploits of a team of scientists as they attempt to develop a computer capable of learning, of using the equivalent of human common sense in its decision-making and programming strategies. The world is by this time, of course, dominated by computer technology, and one such system already in place, responsible for running many of society's most important and necessary faculties both on Earth and in space, has nearly killed a construction crew on the moon through a decision that was unimpeachably logical but not very bright. But a new system, spearheaded by Dr. Raymond Dyer, happens to be in development, with vigorous testing being undertaken to perfect its learning capabilities, so that the computer will best approximate the way human beings learn from infancy how to function in the world around them through trial, error and experience.

But Dyer is plagued with doubts. After championing the system, he feels horrendous guilt at the near-disaster on the moon and really begins to worry what might happen should the new system evolve faster than expected, with more distressing results. What would happen if it becomes truly self-aware, with the survival instincts of an actual life-form? And then, what would happen if it perceived the very humans that created it as a threat to its own continued existence? What if it couldn't be turned off? (Yes, this premise was also the basis for James Cameron's Terminator films.) Fortunately, a remarkable beta-test opportunity presents itself. A space station under construction will have this bold new supercomputer installed, and then it will be, in a manner of speaking, attacked; thus a closed society, a microcosm of Earth is in place with the computer allowed to do what it will to defend itself in a worst-case scenario, without putting the Earth itself at any risk. Beautiful, right? So the system, named Spartacus, is installed on the orbital space station Janus, and sure enough, before you can say "Windows 2000" Spartacus is outmaneuvering, outguessing, and staying several jumps ahead of Dyer and his team, with a learning curve that quickly becomes alarming — and dangerous.

Computers are Hogan's forté, and this cautionary tale — written, incidentally, at a time when Radio Shack's TRS-80 was the best-known desktop home computer — has a simple and difficult-to-argue message: humanity should not abdicate its responsibility to its own welfare simply because we can develop the technology to do so. Fortunately, Hogan the scientist is not Hogan the lecturer when he's in the business of telling his tale. He's a full-blooded SF writer with an emphasis on the "S," and so those of you into nutsy-boltsy SF will be in seventh heaven here. In its early character-driven passages, Hogan sometimes falls back on some clichéd standbys when developing his characters. Dialogue between Dyer and his love-interest Laura Fenning reads like every bit of sarcastic, "we act like we hate each other but we really don't" romantic bickering Hollywood has offered us from Philadelphia Story all the way up to Moonlighting.

But when the battle royal between man and machine is roaring ahead at full steam, all such nitpicks virtually evaporate, as the novel abruptly shifts from the intellectual to the visceral. HAL 9000 has nothing on Spartacus, gang! The Two Faces of Tomorrow is a chilling, tense white-knuckle excursion into a near-future all too plausible. And it's one of the most exciting hard science novels out there, period. Next time you think Bill Gates is the scariest thing to happen to computers, pick up this book.