Volume 26, Number 1, Fall 2007

Radio Freefall

By Matt Jarpe

Tor, 2007, $24.95
Reviewed by Anders Monsen
Fall 2007

If Bill Gates decided that having become the world’s richest man from selling software was not really enough, and instead decided he wanted to take over the world, his role-model would be Walter Cheeseman, the villain in Matt Jarpe’s entertaining debut novel, Radio Freefall. Cheeseman, head of a major computing corporation, is also the brains and driving force behind the idea of Unification, the worldwide movement to snuff out individual countries under a One World scenario. Although the novel discusses the unfolding of Unification, as well as the Nationalist opposition—whose slogan of “A world without borders is a world without choice. Celebrate diversity,” makes for an interesting idea that libertarians possibily would at first object to, as a consistent libertarian sees the concept of borders as one imposed by government, until one realizes what they are up against—but the driving force of Radio Freefall is the individual.

Set in the early 2030s, with a strong retro-cyberpunk feel, and with a decidely musical bent, Jarpe strings together a story that’s damn near impossible to put down once started, and it all comes down to the characters. In particular, the novel is more about two protagonists whose fates become quite entwined. One is a musician and rebel and social engineer of almost scary heights. The other is a technical wizard who had a falling out with Cheeseman over the idea that somewhere in cyberspace is an intelligent, emergent AI with powers beyond conprehension and reach. Considering the dependent state in which humans find themselves to electronic networks in the 2030s this is equivalent to an electronic despot with a mad sense of humor.

The musician in question emerges from the desert near Las Vegas carrying a guitar case and some technical know-how. There he virtually creates a band out of nothing, a disparate group of perpetually stoned, paranoid prima-donna lounge act members. Going under the pseudonym, Aqualung, he propels the group called the Snake Vendors into worldwide fame using a mood-enhacing concert device that enables him to play the crowd almost like an instrument. People flock to hear the new sound and experience the almost drug-like sensation from this device.

The idea of a rock ‘n roll sf novel seems quite unique these days, although punk sensibility is what the young sf guns picked up and ran with in the early 1980s. By adopting the cool looks of mirrorshades and leather-jackets the cyberpunk writers and fans seemed to say, “There’s more to this sf stuff than just the writing.” You don't detect any ‘tude in Radio Freefall. Rather, the music generally harkens back to a distant age, say late 1960s, early 70s. Aqualung is basically a middle-aged guy trying to resurface after decades of hiding his real identity, which played a major role in creating the program that replicated and birthed itself as a world wide virus, aka the Digital Carnivore. This program renders secrets and proprietary information on the web impossible, and worries quite a few people. Meanwhile AIs, who in this universe work and act just like real people, view the Digital Carnivore as a god, though there are people out there with other views.

One of these is Quin Taber, a brilliant computer programmer who once worked for Cheeseman, but after a dispute quit to form his own company. Taber is obsessed with the Digital Carnivore. He also has his own major illegal secret. He has smuggled the creation of a very special AI, one tethered only to him. Taber uses her unwavering devotion and calculating powers to track down the creator of the Digital Carnivore, and forges an uneasy truce with Aqualung.

As Taber closes in on the Digital Carnivore, his actions attract the interests of Cheeseman, who’s always alert for unusual currents in the technological world. The fame of the Snake Vendors rockets Aqualung into the forefront, revealing old enemies, and sending him on the run. Seeking to find anonymity on the Moon, he lands instead on Freefall, an orbital station funded by Big Pharma, which has since grown to a near independent entity. Cheeseman, with the weight of almost the entire world’s governmental force, sees the key to independence from the Digital Carnivore in Aqualung, and moves swiftly. Will independence prevail? And what of the near slave-like conditions for Taber’s illegal and immoral AI?

Radio Freefall highlights the self-destructive behavior of many musicans who seek solace in drugs. The meat-grinder like pace of touring is famous for its excesses (sex, drugs, and rock ’n roll, as the saying goes). Few of the members of the Snake Vendors emerge unscathed. Yet the music is only part of the story. The idea of AIs emerging from smaller computer programs is an old one (see The Moon is a Harsh Mistress). Jarpe bypasses the old question as to whether AIs have rights, and flatly assumes this, giving the case with a tethered AI an uneasy ethical dilemma. Despite the odd lack of technological change (Taber downloading songs from the net a la iTunes; the near-identical function of the internet 20 years in the future, whereas 20 years ago it was a radical concept), Jarpe’s future is a complex place. The novel also blends light-hearted humor, and I found the mystery behind the origin of the vast intelligent virus quite compelling. Along with the political discussions of Unification, and the last stand statements of the lunar and orbital locales, I thoroughly enjoyed the book from beginning to end.

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