Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Proof of Concept by Gwyneth Jones

Proof of Concept by Gwyneth Jones is a science fictional novella put out by Tor.com. I picked it up based on a recommendation from a friend, and the vague belief that maybe I'd like Gwyneth Jones more now that I was older.

On a desperately overcrowded future Earth, crippled by climate change, the most unlikely hope is better than none. Governments turn to Big Science to provide them with the dreams that will keep the masses compliant. The Needle is one such dream, an installation where the most abstruse theoretical science is being tested: science that might make human travel to a habitable exoplanet distantly feasible.

When the Needle’s director offers her underground compound as a training base, Kir is thrilled to be invited to join the team, even though she knows it’s only because her brain is host to a quantum artificial intelligence called Altair.

But Altair knows something he can’t tell.

Kir, like all humans, is programmed to ignore future dangers. Between the artificial blocks in his mind, and the blocks evolution has built into his host, how is he going to convince her the sky is falling?

Proof of Concept had some interesting ideas in it but they did not overall make up for certain less interesting aspects of the writing and story. To start off, I found the start difficult to follow. The actual opening scene was OK, as far as these things go, but the subsequent section which, more or less, explained the point of the story was hard to follow. Especially since I was tired when I was reading it. I actually ended up going back and rereading a section because I realised I had no idea what was going on. I will note, however, that further into the book things pick up a bit and I found myself more interested in returning to reading it than I was nearer to the start.

I mentioned giving this story a chance based on a recommendation. The reason I needed a friend's recommendation to give it a try is because the only other Gwyneth Jones book I've read is Bold As Love, back in my early teens. Back then, I picked that book up because it had a pretty cover (so pretty, more so in real life than online) but didn't enjoy it. I thought at the time it was because I was too young to get some of the references (true but not the whole issue) but reading Proof of Concept I noticed a few parallels in character choices, mostly of background characters that bothered me the same way. So I think I'm just not a fan of Gwyneth Jones's writing and probably never will be.

That said, the middle and end of Proof of Concept were interesting enough to have me turning pages for reasons beyond wanting to get it over with. The plot centres around an isolation mission, with people sealed into a large underground cavern on a not-spaceship. The idea is that the scientists will perform experiments in a giant Faraday cage (or something, the basis was wishy-washy with intention) and the other half of the inhabitants were something to do with the media. I may have missed something, but I think it was a reality TV kind of thing, to be released after they all came back from the mission. (See what I mean about being confused? I only really managed to get my head around the science half of the premise.) Unexpected stuff starts to happen though, making the plot more interesting and culminating in a satisfying ending. I should be clear that I found the ending satisfying because it fit with my headcannon, but others might find the degree of uncertainty frustrating.

I would recommend Proof of Concept to fans of hard SF who don't mind a significant character-driven component to their stories. On the other hand, I wouldn't recommend it to fans of character-driven stories. I liked the main character, who is also a host for a quantum computer, but I didn't feel that she was enough to save the story. Not that she was a bad choice of point of view character, just that we could have gotten to know her even more that we did. Personally, I don't think I'll bother picking up anything by Gwyneth Jones in the future, but this is a very subjective analysis and you definitely shouldn't let me put you off if you haven't given her a shot (and being a novella, Proof of Concept isn't a terrible way to sample her writing).

3 / 5 stars

First published: April 2017, Tor.com
Series: No
Format read: ePub
Source: Purchased from iBooks

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