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A Virtual Affair

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  • Posted September 14, 2011

    A logical and engaging take on artificial intelligence, relationships, and sex

    I received A Virtual Affair as a review copy after meeting the author at a writer's workshop.

    Zvi Zaks writes science fiction in a thoughtful way, developing the consequences of his premise logically and in detail. Since he is an M.D., I know I would like him to be my doctor. He is very careful and has a thorough understanding of what he is doing fictionally. This works very well in A Virtual Affair, a novel in which a virtual reality sex program develops into a very powerful artificial intelligence.

    The central figure is Jack Leader, a virtual reality company executive who starts as a self-destructive, lonely workaholic and is virtually (pun intended) 100% transformed by his experience. The AI starts as a computer program designed to flirt and have intercourse, and, as a result of Jack's Socratic questioning techniques, becomes a self-aware digital entity capable of transforming lives, dedicated at first to Jack, and then more and more operating within its/her own conscience. The transformation is interestingly done, with subtle drama that will please a thoughtful reader. A secondary important theme is the nature of male/female relationships, and could provoke serious thoughts about the gender-specific responsibility of each partner in a marriage.

    Although the sexual material is handled explicitly, it is not written as erotica, but more in a matter-of-fact explication of that element of human experience. Parents may vary in their view of the appropriateness of their children reading books with sexual material, but this book is far from pornographic in my view. The sex functions only as a plot element and is not described in detail in a way designed to stimulate the reader.

    The sequences set within virtual reality, with attention to technology and the parameters of artificial intelligence, are the best and most successful parts. An extended sequence in which Jack receives a neural implant for a different type of VR trip was not so successful for me, although I did like that Jack and his mate were living in a VR shtetl. Generally, I was pleased by the Jewish elements of this story, although they were incidental rather than representing a core thematic element.

    Zaks' writing reminds me variously of Asimov and Niven, Asimov in the way that he uses characters to occupy and embody positions in his narrative, Niven in his willingness to deal with primitive drives such as sex and jealousy as human motivations. I think these are positive qualities in his work. This story contains relatively little humor. I didn't feel the absence when I was reading, and only notice it now, upon reflection.

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