Globe-spanning, and insane in its
ambition, the book is able to balance personal efforts with the global
events, though the latter are often too objective for such an
From the previous book, The Last Firewall, I’ve always liked Catherine
Matthews, or Cat, as she likes to be called. Whereas in the last book,
she was just discovering her powers, here she’s in full control, having
experimented with them for the last ten years. The world has also
changed, with humans augmenting pretty much every part of themselves.
And yet, there is still some fear and resentment. Some people
don’t have implants, and many people still blame AI for the huge amount
of unemployment. On the other end of the scale, many people have some
sort of backup of their personalities, and some have forsaken their
biological bodies altogether, in order to live in virtual reality.
I wasn’t fond of Cat the SWAT team at the beginning of the book.
Nanotech is a substance that could easily become unstable, eating
everything in its path, including the Earth’s core. So when a huge swath
of it is found in Miami, Cat is sent in with Helena, the battle droid
who helped her at the end of the last book. Normal in this universe is
the ability to connect to the net and run thousands of simulations of
events, to ensure Cat’s choices are good ones. When the American
government considers the nanotech swath a terrorist act by AI, due to
its very nature, they send in a nuclear bomb, which will destroy the
physical structure, and an EMP, which will destroy any electronics
nearby. Miami is destroyed, and Cat barely survives. But she had the
chance to override the programming of the missiles. She didn’t because
she saw a huge war with billions dead if she let the nanotech survive.
What happens here is barely better, but at least there are
survivors, due to the extra two years of planning.
I don’t have a
good grasp of eLOPE, the very first AI ever created, because that
happened in an earlier book in the series, one that I haven’t read.
Having escaped from a virus into space at that time, he now returns when
the US starts broadcasting using radio again. eLOPE guides Cat through
some dangerous missions throughout the book, and organizes the mass
evacuation at the end. He has unique properties because he doesn’t
require modern software or data centers, which are all prone to attack.
In the wake of Miami, the USA and China have shut down all AI, and
no longer allow people to upload themselves. The American President was
ousted and the Senate suspended because they were all augmented, which
is now illegal. The rest of the world is constrained by these two
nations to limit AI at class II, to prevent them from taking over.
Of course, suppression of rights has never worked in favor of any
group, and the AI are fighting back. XOR is created, and fueled by the
overly-restrictive laws enforced by humans. These AI believe humans are
inferior, and convince even sympathetic AI to come over to their cause,
the same way humans subvert normal people into cults. Their arguments
sound so logical, and they deflect attention away from inconvenient
facts by questioning those who dig up the facts. This could be an
analogy to what’s happening in our world today, but without the AI.
The American President Reed, who was so far down the Presidential
chain that she never would have expected to be in that position, is
forced to deal with war-monger generals who are actively pursuing an
agenda to wipe out AI from the world. Their methods probably save the
human race in the end, but they are the ones who pushed XOR over the
edge in the first place.
When the action or mood spans the
globe, the story gets a little too impersonal for me, moving into “news”
mode, and without a lot of emotion to go with it. The President offers
some of this, but she is just a pawn until the end. There is an AI who
is brought into the XOR fold, James, who offers an AI perspective, and
that’s very interesting.
The best parts of the book, however,
deal with Cat. I kind of liked it when she was finding her way in the
last book, and had to grow into her character here. She’s always certain
of herself, but as the story continues, she becomes less so. She, Mike
and Leon have moved to Canada, where AI is still legal. They live on a
small island off of Vancouver Island. Cat sneaks into the US to rescue
AI and uploaded personalities. My favorite part is probably where she
breaks into Disney Animation Studios to get a storyteller she needs for
a private side-project, a last resort in case the AI win. She encounters
not-insurmountable obstacles, and it’s fun to watch her. Of course, at
that time she is critically injured because of a careless mistake, and
eLOPE needs to rescue her, getting her out of the heavily-defended
borders of the country.
The story works because of the personal
connection. Cat and Leon are a normal couple, and Cat lives to try and
make the world a better place for their daughter, Ada. She loves Leon
too, but I wonder if he’s just a convenience at this point. There is a
short scene where Cat goes for a nude swim with her old friend, , who
lives permanently in a VR world. They share a passionate kiss with their
bodies pressed together, and I wondered if Cat would leave Leon to go to
her. I’m not sure what the point of that scene was, and it’s a lost
opportunity in that Cat never goes in search of her after the end of the
As with the last book, the technobabble about networks,
defenses, EMP and matter manipulation sounds authentic, and the author
doesn’t try to slow down and explain any of it, assuming we know almost
as much as Cat and the others. In the last book, it was fun. Here, it
went a little over the top for my tastes, as if the author was trying to
find out just how much logical nonsense he could put into a book. But
the very human nature of Cat, Ada and Leon make up for a lot of it.
In the end, XOR does attack, in response to American aggression.
Even though Mike and Leon try to offer the AI Mars, they see the reverse
as true, that they should have Earth. In response to the AI
aggression, America launches millions of nuclear bombs, and billions of
EMPs. The AI are stopped for a bit, but it turns out not to be enough.
So it’s a good thing Cat had been running simulations and creating
backup plans. One of these involves getting six spaceships into orbit
with mainframes. She helps deploy nanotech throughout the US, while
drones do it over the rest of the world. In a last ditch, worse-case
scenario, little nanotech flies will hatch and sting everyone who
doesn’t have an implant, so they can be uploaded. And while the surface
of the Earth is transformed into an AI-supporting structure of solar
panels, eLOPE is able to back up every human on the planet and launch
them out of the solar system. Talk about ambitious! I hadn’t expected
that scenario, but the author went big- about as big as he could.
other really personal scene that I enjoyed was Cat’s time after she
crashes the ultra-stealth airplane, while deploying the fly-makers in
the US. She’s distracted by an XOR attack on the island in Vancouver,
which means Ada. Cat abandons everything to get to Ada and save her. She
opens herself to the net in US territory, blows out every circuit
between Texas and Winnipeg, then to Cortez island, where she is able to
turn away the attack. It’s a moment of pure rage, where saving her
daughter is more important than anything in the world. It’s a pure
parent’s thought, and with Cat’s abilities, she can take it further than
anybody, human or AI.
She travels across the US, north to get
back into Canada using a float plane across Lake Superior, where she
gets her implant repaired. In burning out the net, she also overloaded
her implant. Now she’s more normal than she’s ever been, which I think I
Except that now she and everybody else on Earth are
digital simulations of humans, out to find a suitable planet, or maybe
to wander the galaxy forever in a digital realm, if they can’t.
I’m not sure how I feel about the duplicate Cat being killed. It makes
life easier for everybody of course, but I wonder how Cat would get
along with herself. I wondered, given the earlier scene with her friend,
if Cat would even end up leaving Leon to become intimate with herself.
But I guess that’s too over-the-top, at this point.
I think it’s
now time to turn my attention to the earlier books in this series. I
like this world, and I think I would like it in a simpler time, as well.
My favorite of the series is still The Last Firewall, but this one is
good, too, but of a different, more grand, nature.