Monday, May 14, 2012

100 Books #42 - Guy Haley's OMEGA POINT

I was thoroughly impressed with the first novel in this series/collection, Reality 36, a solid and imaginative bit of cyberpunk introducing the duo of Otto Klein, augmented super-soldier turned freelance problem-solver, and Richards, his partner, an urbane, witty and resourceful artificial intelligence. Long and eagerly did I look forward to this follow-up, for which I put aside a lot of other books I was reading, the second it was available in my Angry Robot subscription feed.

But then my enthusiasm kind of diminished, and I'm having trouble accounting for why. It might just be a matter of what device I read it on. My Angry Robot books come to me in EPUB format, and it's dead easy to download them directly to my Galaxy Tab and read them in Aldiko. It's a perfectly enjoyable experience, reading that way, but the battery life on the Galaxy Tab is, well, let's just say the least awesome thing about it. And it doesn't charge up via just any old USB port; it needs its own charger. More stuff to lug around and lose.

My Kindle (a Kindle 2 for those who must know), though, has stupendous battery life and capacity. So the thing to do is convert all those EPUBs I get into .mobi files and dump them onto my Kindle. But that is a slooooooow process when there are a lot of books. Calibre is great but it does like to take its time.

But none of this should matter if the book is awesome enough. And don't get me wrong, there is plenty of awesome to be had in Omega Point. Just not as much as in Reality 36. Part of this I might just chalk up to familiarity: the first book was introducing me to a world and a way of thinking about, e.g. the artificial intelligences that drive non-player-characters in video games, and it was all new and fresh and shiny. Now I have at least a halfway decent grasp on how that world works and how things can go wrong, so even though the stakes have gotten raised in Omega Point, I'm a little jaded, even though I still love Otto and Richards.

Part of the trouble here is that Otto and Richards don't interact very much this time around, and the sidekick duo of Valdaire and her phone Chloe are about as present as Bubo the Owl was in the Clash of the Titans remake (well, okay, a bit more than that. She is a thing to be rescued at one point after all). Otto is off performing great feats of derring-do in the real world, fighting set-piece battles on a train*, and struggling with the lingering side effects of having what is essentially a second, computerized mind in his head (and no, that's not Richards, though Richards can access it and thus Otto when needed). He meets old frienemies and blows them up. He rampages through "SinoSiberia" to retrieve a hacker who is at the center of a whole heap of trouble. He shoots things. He is Otto.

Meanwhile, Richards spends most of the novel fighting his way through a messed-up fantasy video game into which he has been sucked and imprisoned in a nauseatingly realistic and convincing facsimile of a human body, to his utter (and amusing) disgust. Unlike Pinocchio, Richards never wanted to be a real boy. Before long he is saddled with two very strange companions, an AI teddy bear of militaristic background and mien, and a talking lion skin Richards winds up wearing as a cloak.** He tries not to get turned into a pig by succumbing to unaccustomed human desires and needs like hunger.*** He learns what it means to sweat, to bleed, to stink, to get hurt. His is the more vivid (and horrible) of the two narratives as he is plunged from surreal video game character battles to bits of literary re-enactment and then straight into hell in one of the most horrid scenes I've ever read. Seriously, watch out for Lord Hog.

The team's dual mission/ordeal is all toward a common goal, preventing a rogue AI from taking over both the virtual and real worlds, which overarching plot helps hold the book together but does little to make up for the lack of interaction between our heroes. No matter how many cool set-pieces and clever allusions to other stuff a piece of fiction has, a buddy story needs to have both buddies in it, together in some fashion, or it's really not much fun. Not enough fun to bother with a sissy battery, anyway.

That being said, though, both Otto and Richards have brilliant character moments, moments that make each of them more human, more real, than they were in the prior book. Otto's own, more or less internal, more or less back-story, is particularly moving, and very much of this world, and is not what you expect from the action hero of the pair. He faces a big decision, and by the time he makes it, we're right there with him, sighing over its necessity.

And so, on to the next story. Which is when, exactly? For I wasn't so completely dissatisfied with Omega Point as to be ready to give up on Haley's creation. I just really hope that the next book brings back the magic of teamwork. Because if it's done right, as it was in Reality 36, it's a glorious, glorious thing.

Meanwhile, I have taken the time to convert and move all of my EPUBs to my Kindle. And vow to do a better job of keeping on top of that task in the future.****

*I think the best part of Omega Point is that big battle on the train, because it's so cinematic and deranged it puts a high-quality action movie in the reader's brain.

**The interactions between Richards and the lion skin, named Tarquin for reasons I forget, are some of the novel's best scenes, but since Tarquin is basically being used as a stand-in for Otto, this just calls attention to the fact that the reader is not getting much in the way of that good old Otto/Richards chemistry. If a cyborg and an AI can be said to have chemistry, anyway.

***Oh god, the pig stuff. I've always found Circe's transformation of Odysseus' men into swine to be the most vivid and horrifying scene in Homer; I found the scene in which basically the same thing happens in the movie Willow to be equally horrifying. Here, Haley does it one better: there is metamorphosis into pigs and then there are scenes in a slaughterhouse, in which "generations of terrified swine had left their mark in rills of ossified urine" and there is a "line of pigs... chained together in inhumane fashion, a ring forced through the nose of each, a second piercing the flesh above the tail.... They walked slowly, heads down, their fear-haunted eyes an indication that they had not always been as they were." UGHHH.

****Why not just buy my Angry Robot books from Amazon, you may ask? Because Angry Robot sells its books free of digital rights management, for one thing, which means they feel a little bit more like I actually own them; I can change their formats, share them as much as I like, etc. And also, Angry Robot's ebook subscription service delivers all of its new ebooks to me as they come out for one annual fee, and that is both awesomely convenient and saves me a few scheckels -- in addition to introducing me to new authors I might otherwise have taken who knows how long to learn of via word of mouth. Go, Angry Robot, go!

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