Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Material Witness: "a story that develops at breakneck speed and is cinematic in action levels"

REVIEW: Unholy Domain by Dan Ronco

I have two colleagues who tell illuminating stories about the development of technology: one illustrates how unpredictable the application and adoption of new technologies can be, the latter just how quickly things can change and how our expectations and perceptions of them alter with it.

The first recounts the early days of telecommunications when the pioneers of the industry laid the first cables with little understanding of exactly how they would be used. Everyday conversation was certainly not expected to be one of the major uses of the lines. It has of course become the "killer app" and has altered our world beyond recognition.

The second story is told by a woman who took her young son to a doctor's officer where he saw a strange item with a handset and a wire coming out of it sitting on the receptionist's desk. "What is this mummy?" the boy asked. "That's a telephone," she replied. The boy picked it up and mimicked taking a photograph.

Bear with me, because there is a point to all this. Having spent most of the last decade either writing about technology or working for a technology company, I have become fascinated by the evolution of networks, gadgets and the like and also about the limits of them. As the story of the little boy who sees a phone as a camera first rather than a communications device shows, things move extraordinarily quickly and in unexpected directions.

A dozen years ago I had no internet access, no digital camera, no GPS. Now I have them all in one device of about 3x2x1 inches, which also allows me to make calls wherever I am in the world. I could not have envisaged any of these things, some of them even five or six years ago. What will my device do in 12 years time? I have no idea, but I expect it to be extraordinary.

For all those reasons, I was well disposed to Dan Ronco's novel, Unholy Domain, which takes curiosity about technological evolution and turns it into a fascinating and thought-provoking sci-fi thriller.

Ronco, is well placed to do this. His academic qualifications in the technology field are impeccable and he has also done stints with AT&T and Microsoft. (I tried not to hold this against him; after all it is probably not his fault that it takes Windows so damned long to open). But what he also has going for him is imagination, and that combined with his technological know-how has allowed him to develop a credible, if outlandish, plot in which the forces of technology and religion clash in a future-defining battle of wills, power and no little violence.

It is not the most stylishly written book I have come across and there are one or two moments (not technologically related) that defy belief (I found an episode where the protagonist David Brown falls in love utterly unconvincing).

But that doesn't matter so much in a book like this, where the idea is key, and where here it is followed through with utter conviction in a story that develops at breakneck speed and is cinematic in action levels.

David Brown finds himself in the middle of the war between the anti-technology Church of the Natural Human and a shadowy technological organisation called the Domain, which fight for supremacy in the wake of a massive software virus attack which disabled the world's communications system and left the US in economic depression and on the verge of total societal breakdown.

The one side believes that only by adopting a Luddite approach to technology can humanity find its way, while the other stresses that only advances can restore society to its former glories. The ruthlessness with which both pursue their cause is total: assassination, murder, even crucification is carried out without undue reference to conscience. The struggle is bitter, bloody and brutal.

Brown is the son of Ray Brown, a former colleague of Dianne Morgan the "witch" at the heart of the Domain, the man believed to be responsible for the catastrophic virus PeaceMaker. When his father visits him from beyond the grave to proclaim his innocence, David, a software prodigy embarks on a quest to find the truth, which ultimately draws him into the battle between church and PC.

David Brown is the story's major weakness. I found him a largely unsympathetic character: unlikable and largely difficult to understand, particularly in the early stages of Domain, which presumed more knowledge of its prequel, PeaceMaker, than I had (none).

But again, it was reasonably easy to overcome this - and he grew on me a little as the story wore on - partly because other characters Morgan and Adam Jordan, head of the religious faction, were so satisfactorily demonic and insane. But also because the idea - of the techno/religious war and the central technology itself, which is an advanced form of AI, capable of "mixing" with the human mind, for want of a better word - is intriguing.

Religion has long raged against science, and science has long ridiculed religion. It's an old warIt's going on right now around stem cells and genetics and the like, and that is fascinating. What Ronco has done is given it a new lease of life by casting it 20 years into the future where it is powerede by his impressive imagination.

Visit my Amazon Profile to read other reviews of Unholy Domain.

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