A nanotechnology engineer’s mind, uploaded online, reboots after spending three years in a netherworld and must try to remember what went wrong with the experiment.
Kelly’s debut SF novel offers a first-person narration from entirely within a software-based environment called the Aethyr. Pittsburgh nanotech engineer Patrick “Paddy” Riordan was part of a pioneering experiment in the late 2020s by a cutting-edge/punk rock–style team of young coders, neurologists, and biochemists. The group planned to digitize a human brain and put its consciousness online, theoretically resulting in immortality, godlike perceptions, empathy, and power. The subject was supposed to be the team’s financier, terminally ill venture capitalist Andrew Damon. But Paddy, suffering chronic gastric pain, volunteered to leave flesh behind and go first even if that meant being clinically euthanized and having his brain sectioned. After three years in a limbolike state, Paddy regains awareness and his mortal appearance (complete with Iron Maiden T-shirt) in the Aethyr’s artificial program/simulation and its seedy, noirish city of New Eridu. (Here, as in the porn-dominated web, most places seem to be sex clubs and strip joints.) Surrounded by sinister phantoms and avatars that may either be people or AIs, Paddy finds that vital parts of his memory are missing. Moreover, a warrior type, calling itself the Varyag and declaring itself his defender, hints that the researcher who was the radiant love of Paddy’s life, MIT prodigy Zinaida, aka Zed, is in danger. Somehow in this incorporeal state, Paddy can help her. But is the Varyag lying? What happened to Andrew? What really happened to Paddy? For that matter, what’s happening right now? If this tale had been told in a more straightforward fashion, it might have had less impact. But in Kelly’s long-end-of-the-cyberscope gambit, starting with the outcome and leapfrogging back in time, the story is an intriguing puzzle of transhumanist tech, philosophy, metaphysics, and unreliable narrators. The narrative delivers a mounting sense of dread as digital entities broadly hint to Paddy that he will deeply regret learning the truth if he chooses to continue his quest. While describing the rubber reality of Aethyr is a tough proposition, SF readers raised on The Matrix and Black Mirror (the recipient of a shoutout) and Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash should acclimate to the immaterial milieu.
Cyberpunk shock meets infinite romantic regret in this dark, engrossing, and ultimately doleful SF tale.