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Left To His Own Devices, Mary Gentle

September 12, 2012

Left To His Own Devices, Mary Gentle (1994)
Review by Ian Sales

Readers were first introduced to the characters Valentine ‘White Crow’ and Baltazar Casaubon in the short stories ‘Beggars in Satin’ and ‘The Knot Garden’, both of which were original to Gentle’s first collection Scholars & Soldiers (1989). But the two characters are better-known from a pair of fantasy novels, Rats and Gargoyles (1990) and The Architecture of Desire (1991). Left To His Own Devices is the third book in this loose trilogy, but it is science fiction and it is set in the near-future (of its time of writing).

The Scholar-Soldier Valentine is now Valentine Branwen, and still a scholar and a soldier – but in this case, ex-military, an Elizabethan re-enactment sword-fighter, and programmer of games and hacker. Casaubon, on the other hand, is a “link-architect”. He is a computer scientist of sorts, but specialises in “the architecture of information space; that is, a database cross-indexed to within an inch of its life” (p 46). Casaubon has also invented Direct Neural Interface, a means of accessing data directly from a brain and downloading it. Valentine has already used the technique to create a Virtual Reality, SHAKESPEAREWORLD, in a matter of hours. And Valentine has solved the Travelling Salesman problem and created an algorithm which transforms Non-P problems into P problems.

Casaubon and Valentine decide that their inventions are too dangerous to be left in the hands of any one nation-state, so they arrange a demonstration before the press and release all the code on the Internet. The guineau pig for the demo is Miles Godric, an ex-boyfriend of Valentine’s and a freelancer for Hypershift! news channel. Valentine secretly includes her algorithm in the download of Godric’s brain – but this has unforeseen consequences…

… which only become apparent when Godric looks through the data downloaded from his brain. He’d chosen Marlowe as his topic for the demonstration, but the information trawled from his memory appears to include a play, A Spy at Londinium, written by Marlowe in 1610, seventeen years after the playwright was stabbed to death in a tavern brawl. The contents of the play also seem to strangely reflect the events of the plot of Left To His Own Devices, with characters who are clearly Valentine, Casaubon, Godric, and Valentine’s mother, Johanna Branwen, the PanEuropean Minister of Defence.

The demo, it transpires, has created an “Artificial Unconscious”. It’s not an Artificial Intelligence, or any kind of Oracle, but what it has done is crack every secure network on the planet and corrupt the data within them. Banks and governments are beginning to fail. All information is now completely accessible to all, and the world must change to accommodate that. Johanna Branwen, obviously, is somewhat resistant to this idea.

Left To His Own Devices is set in the near-future of 1994, but it’s plainly not the 1994 that we remember. There are still Confederate States, and much of Europe has been decimated by war. The UK, part of France and part of Spain have formed a PanEuropean Government, which appears to be British in all but name. London has also been “closed”, although it’s never entirely clear what prompted this or what exactly it means. There are references to refugees living on the streets, abandoned properties and some sort of government permission required to live within the city.

The worldbuilding, however, is secondary to the various manifestations of the Artificial Unconscious and the swathes of invented Marlovian dialogue that it quotes. There is also the relationship between Valentine and Casaubon, which echoes their relationship in the earlier White Crow novels. At times, both characters seem a little too good to be true, a Mary Sue and a Gary Stu, and the prose focuses on them with far too admiring an eye. It’s as if they – and the author – see only each other, and everyone else is peripheral to their existence. But as the story moves into its second half, with the creation of the Artificial Unconscious a fait accompli, and some sort of accommodation needed with the world it is creating, so the narrative allows the rest of the cast to move closer to centre stage.

The writing throughout is very good, and Gentle does that trick of hers where she mixes past and present tense, which is very effective.

Hearing only the sound of blades, she missed a metallic groan. The iron fire-escape creaked.
She feels the disparate weights of a blade a yard and a half long, three quarters of an inch wide, in one hand, a blade fifteen inches long in the other. Her dagger foot is advanced, her dagger hand forward; her rear hand and rapier raised, point steadily aimed at her opponent’s eye–
“–Do not mess about with swords!” (p 5)

The prose is also very detailed, with an almost Delany-esque attention to light and odour:

A faint air, already warm, slid into the room; smelling of dust, vinegar, and dog-shit. A less perceptible, more metaphysical scent impinged itself on his instincts. (p 20)

The technology discussed throughout Left To His Own Devices is a mix and match of early 1990s and invented near-future, which gives it an odd, and often dated, feel. Valentine, for instance, writes code on an Apple Mac, but has a flat-screen covering one entire wall of her studio. As a database professional, the central conceit of the novel, and Casaubon’s “link-architecture”, did strike me as nonsense. Databases use relational theory and relational algebra, and there are a number of sophisticated mathematical tools available whose existence render Casaubon’s profession meaningless.

There’s a sense throughout Left To His Own Devices that the two main characters have wandered in from another story and are not entirely at home in the plot. Given the references to hermeticism, the Art of Memory and other themes present in Rats and Gargoyles and The Architecture of Desire, this is likely deliberate. But it does give the prose an odd feel. Left To His Own Devices is ostensibly a near-future pseudo-cyberpunk story about the inadvertent creation of an AI (of sorts), but it is wrapped about with the plays of Marlowe, Elizabethan and Renaissance sword-fighting, and references to topics more suited to the two fantasies of which it is a loose sequel.

However, this does not mean that Left To His Own Devices is a bad novel. On the contrary, it is very good. I suspect, however, that reading it cold, without having read Rats and Gargoyles or The Architecture of Desire, would be doing it a disservice as familiarity with those two novels not only enrichens Left To His Own Devices but also makes more sense of it.

Left To His Own Devices was published in a book with three short stories. ‘Black Motley’ and ‘What God Abandoned’ are fantasy, but ‘The Road To Jerusalem’ is alternate history – and perhaps one of the best alternate history short stories ever written; it is certainly a personal favourite of mine.

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