Ghosthunt, Jo Clayton

Ghosthunt, Jo Clayton (1983)
Review by Ian Sales

Ghosthunt is the seventh book in Clayton’s nine-book Diadem series. The heroine of the series is Aleytys, an unsophisticated, and extremely beautiful, young woman from a low tech planet who becomes the inadvertent wearer of the Diadem, an alien device which contains the consciousnesses of three previous wearers. The Diadem also gives Aleytys psionic powers. After several books in which Aleytys was sold into, and then escaped from, sexual slavery, she now works for Hunters, Inc., who do exactly what their name implies – part-mercenary, part-private investigators, part-recovery agent, and very expensive. She also has a son, who is with his father on her home world. She knows the father hates her, and suspects her son will be raised to do the same. Except her son is not with his father…

Hunters, Inc. are contacted by the management of the Company resort world Cazarit. Several people have been kidnapped from it, and the world’s security has been unable to determine the perpetrator. Worse, they have an upcoming party of rulers from the Aghir, and they think the kidnapper will target one of them. Aleytys is reluctant to take the case, but thinks she detects the hand of an old friend in the kidnappings and so signs on, providing she gets to choose what happens to the perpetrator.

Meanwhile, Lilit, teenage daughter of one of the Aghir lords, is about to be married off to another lord. She hates her intended, her father, and pretty much everything about her world. It is a cruel place, in which the rulers live in luxury while those who mine the metals which have made the worlds wealthy live in poverty in a barely habitable alien ecosphere. Lilit is keeping a diary, and her writings in it explain her world and how she came to secretly join a rebellion against her father and the other lords.

Aleytys arrives on Cazarit, with her boss’s daughter as assistant, and immediately begins browbeating the local security staff into giving her full access to everything. They’re reluctant because their failure reflects badly on them, but she can’t figure out who the kidnapper is before he strikes unless she go where she needs and see what she wants. This turns into a guided tour of Cazarit, with its many islands, each of which is dedicated to a different type of entertainment – one for gambling, one for cruelty, one for drugs, etc.

The kidnapper is indeed Aleytys’s old friend Stavver, and he has her son with him and is teaching him the trade. Meanwhile, Lilit has decided to be a suicide bomber, and she will detonate the bomb hidden in her wedding finery at the celebration on Cazarit when she is presented to the lords of the Aghir and her new groom.

Aleytys quickly uncovers how the previous victims were kidnapped – the highly technological security team had looked for flaws in their system, and found none. The kidnapper pretty much climbed over a fence. They had not thought to look for such a low tech approach.

The plot takes its time getting to the climax, but when it does reach it everything goes pretty much as expected. Aleytys’s powers are dialled back in this novel, only making an appearance as and when required to help her do her job. Even her companions inside the Diadem – only two of them, as one has taken over another man’s body, as detailed in the previous book, The Nowhere Hunt – only pop up once or twice in the narrative. If Ghosthunt feels more like heartland science fiction than earlier books’ peplum space opera, there are plenty of flashbacks to remind the reader of Aleytys’s brutal past. And, of course, the worlds of the Aghir are equally brutal – I shall never understand the appeal of such societies in science fiction. Ghosthunt feels a more cosmopolitan novel than previous ones in the series, and the badinage between Aleytys and her assistant almost a faint tinge of Heinlein to it. Of course, she is still a super-special heroine with super-special powers, and they have a tendency to overwhelm the plot, which is likely why Clayton dialled them back in this novel.

Ghosthunt is one of the better entries in the Diadem series, though none of them can ever be called classic science fiction. It was followed by The Snares of Ibex and Questor’s Endgame.

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Virtual Girl, Amy Thomson

virtual-girl-coverVirtual Girl, Amy Thomson (1993)
Review by Simon Petrie

Arnold Brompton is a renegade programmer who develops an AI personality named Maggie, which he ports into an artificial humaniform body. He does this partly because he can, partly because his father has repeatedly sought to thwart him in this endeavour, and partly because he craves companionship. It’s a hazardous undertaking: artificial intelligence is a proscribed field of study, and the discovery of Maggie’s identity as an artificial construct would lead to her destruction and Arnold’s incarceration. It’s imperative, therefore, that Maggie learn how to flawlessly present herself as human, rather than machine. But is a sedentary, basement-dwelling computer nerd with a dose of street smarts really the best instructor of human behaviour?

Maggie is programmed for full obedience towards her creator Arnold, and to begin with she must, indeed, depend upon him. But Arnold makes a mistake, and Maggie is forced to choose between subservience to Arnold and her own survival. She chooses the more interesting option.

Thomson excels at characterisation and at giving voice to the thoughts, fears, and motivations of characters who can be very far from human. In Maggie, she has created an entity who, while technically lacking human emotion, does naturally engage our empathy, and Maggie’s deep-outsider perspective offers several intriguing points of analysis on aspects of human behaviour which might, in other contexts, be utterly unremarkable. Maggie’s important human reference points include Arnold, who undergoes a sinister but plausible transformation during the story (typified by his subsequent marginalisation of her identity as merely a “bag lady”); four-year-old Claire, whose innate acceptance of Maggie does much to affirm the robot’s sense of being and belonging; Azul, a hooker and aspiring dance-musician, who adopts Maggie and forms a significant bond with her; and Marie, Azul’s landlady, an Anna Madrigal type who, among other things, helps Maggie to understand certain aspects of human interaction which had, up until then, remained almost completely opaque.

I wouldn’t classify Virtual Girl as a high-octane read (by analogy, for example, with Madeline Ashby’s similarly-themed but distinctly more violent vN, which I believe may have been somewhat influenced by Thomson’s novel); though the story certainly shuttles from place to place (driven by Maggie’s need to keep on the move, so as to evade detection by the Bromptons), there’s plenty of opportunity for reflection and a sense of (mostly) peaceful existence as Maggie learns about humans, and about herself. There’s also a (mostly) plausible extrapolation of near-future US society (circa, I believe, the 2040s) – maglevs, solar panels, neural implants – though it’s almost unavoidable that the 1990s-vision computational detail is incorrect in parts. (The titbit I found hardest to swallow was the now-quaint notion that Maggie’s complete sensorium, a year’s worth of memories, and her astonishingly complex operating system would all fit on eight CDs, around 6GB total capacity by my estimation, as if CDs would even be used for this application in a quarter-century from today.) But provided you don’t insist on complete predictive accuracy (which is always a hazardous undertaking in any work of SF), the book manages admirably to ring true. It’s a very accomplished piece of character-driven hard SF, and it delivers on several levels.

This review originally appeared on Simon Petrie.