Free enterprise, for all its impersonal Darwinian ruthlessness, motivates technology's evolution like nothing else. However altruistic someone's initial motives might be in developing new technologies, the process will inevitably fall into the hands of a marketplace whose most aggressive alpha players will quickly shut out the betas cold. Then they'll set about tearing one another to pieces, all for the fleeting glory of being leader of the pack, offering the very best of whatever it is people have let themselves be convinced they want this week to enrich their humdrum lives.
Like other notable names in speculative fiction who have come before him — Bruce Sterling, Richard K. Morgan — David Louis Edelman is fascinated by the influence of market forces on the direction of technological innovation. Taking cues from his own professional experience as a programmer, Edelman's Jump 225 trilogy posits a distant future in the throes of technological renaissance, where the biggest names in programming are like rock stars and gurus, and the entire human body can be modded to the cellular level. You want your eye color to match your outfit for that day? Need to stay awake for days on end to meet important deadlines? Or to work out advanced mathematical equations in your head? Yeah, there's an app for that.
Three centuries into the Awakening, following years of technological stagnation in the wake of a Terminator-like revolt by renegade AI's, the old nations of Earth are gone, and what governments exist mostly take the form of civic groups to which individuals choose to subscribe. The Awakening came about from the work of Sheldon Surina, who pioneered the concept of bio/logics, integrating technology with the human body in a way that both benefited humanity directly and circumvented the need for autonomous machine intelligence completely. Generations later, bio/logics is to human society what oil is today. It's not just big business, it's the biggest business there is. Its innovations are in the hands of free-market dependent "fiefcorps" and privately-funded "memecorps." Only small pockets of humanity — like the Islanders and Pharisees (the latter holed up, in a rather facile jab at political relevancy, in the Middle east) — eschew bio/logics altogether.
Sheldon Surina had humanity's recovery in mind. But the economic and corporate culture that has arisen from his work is as unforgiving as anything before it. What makes Infoquake so compelling is Edelman's skillful rendering of the people he envisions at the very core of this culture. The ways in which people preserve their fundamental humanity in a future where it would be all too easy to let it go completely is something that isn't often explored very convincingly in even the best hard SF. Some writers have tried, but few have done as well as Edelman in asking the basic question of what kind of people would be produced by a world where tech and the body were one.
For this story, we get not a hero, but an antihero as perfectly unlikable as any SF has seen. Natch is a programmer motivated by ambition taken beyond hubris. As a character, he's repugnant and compelling in the manner of Charles Foster Kane. He's so self-absorbed that, as a young man, he has no direction for his ambition apart from basking in his own dreamed-of success. He learns, not so much to change, but simply to adapt, if that's what it takes to beat his rivals to the top of Primo's. This is a Google-ish investment index whose number one spot has consistently been held, like Microsoft, by two brothers who seem infallibly in touch with the public's wants. In a move of outrageous audacity, Natch successfully engineers a media panic — and here the novel offers some savvy commentary on the viral nature of news and current worries about cyber-terrorism — that succeeds in getting his own fiefcorp's newest program launch to the top spot for nearly an hour.
It's a shameless move typical of the man who, as a teenager, brazenly tried to kill a rival outright. But though the stunt does nothing to raise the general public's low opinion of him, Natch does come to the attention of Margaret Surina, heir to the whole bio/logics dynasty. She is prepared to launch something she calls MultiReal, a mystery project that's been the subject of wild speculation for years. And she's offering Natch a partnership — one, he will soon discover, that's far trickier than it seems.
How unfolding events leave their marks on the people caught up in them is where Infoquake is at its most gripping. The reader-surrogate character in all this is Jara, an investment advisor who becomes a key figure in Natch's inner circle. Her integrity is constantly at war with practicality. She's both repelled by and drawn to Natch, who, for all his cold eyes-on-the-prize single-mindedness, knows her better than she does. These internal conflicts — Natch's character arc is entirely the opposite of Jara's, as he only grows more arrogant — propel the book to a climax tempered by a powerful sense of unease and anxiety. Natch may think he can take anything the world throws at him. But where most novels would let this lead to banal thematic moralizing, what's alarming to contemplate here is that he probably can.
Followed by MultiReal.
[Interesting trivial footnote: The ARC (advance reader's copy) of Infoquake from Pyr differs slightly from the released version, in that it inverts the order of the last two chapters. Edelman may have decided the book needed to end on a more upbeat note. But I think the way he had it in the ARC is much more effective dramatically, providing a more ambiguous, and therefore better, hook for the sequel. Read it both ways and see what you think.]