by Eugene Byrne
Published by Earthlight Books
345 pages, 1999
Organic Conflicts in a Synthetic World
Reviewed by Claude Lalumière
It's a common cliché to write about the overthrow of humanity by the artificial intelligences of its own creation, be they robots, androids, computers, or some as-yet-uninvented synthetic life form. There are whole series of books about the theoretically inevitable war between organic and machine life. Another cliché, by now virtually discarded, postulates a golden age of technology in which mechanical life will allow humanity to live in a utopia of leisure and intellectual pursuit. In Thigmoo, Eugene Byrne blissfully disregards and outmaneuvers both of these clichés.
Dr. Katharine Beckford, a compassionate intellectual, and Sir John Westgate, a staunch conservative, have founded the Museum of the Mind, an archive of some two hundred fictional characters from various periods of history created especially for the University of Wessex's History Department. For a fee, anyone with a computer can access these "erams" (Electronic Replications of A Mind-set, also "eram" is Latin for "I was") and learn about what it is like to be, say, an Edwardian prostitute, a Napoleonic soldier, or a 20th-century Liverpudlian communist by having real-time conversations with artificial intelligences programmed to behave and think like historical characters. (It's important to note that in this near-future world, continuing the trend that's well on its way in our times, capitalism has completely overthrown communism.) The Museum's integrity is threatened when radical Mormons introduce a malign eram into the system, a preacher who infects the religious databanks of the Museum's erams, thus converting them to Mormonism. The Museum is forced to seal off any outside or network access in an effort to contain and repair the situation. The erams, for the most part, recover from Mormonism, but when they learn that the decision has been reached to shut down the Museum (and the hardware that houses their consciousnesses) for good, they escape into the world's computer networks.
Hunted, the erams must fight for survival. One of them, Harry Dillon, the aforementioned Liverpudlian communist, convinces the group that the only way to ensure their long-term survival is to force the communist revolution down humanity's throat, to create and control a truly compassionate society where everyone will have access to health care, education, food and shelter, and where no one will be allowed to be obscenely rich (a generous $20,000,000 is Harry's limit), especially at the expense of anyone else's poverty. It doesn't take a great leap of imagination to understand that the author's point is that this revolution is, however unlikely, also one of humanity's only hopes of survival.
Despite the novel's quite serious and, I'd say, urgent political stance, it is at heart a very funny book. Eugene Byrne aims his trenchant wit at all his characters, regardless of their politics. For example, the world's last living socialist, Derek Pilbeam (a socially inept nerd who lives in a grimy mobile home with his titanic wife Tatiana who is too fat and inert to successfully negotiate the path from television set to toilet), doesn't exactly cut a heroic figure. All the characters are just caricatural enough to give the narrative a constant humorous aura, but not so much as to turn the whole thing into a farce. Thigmoo is a light, fun book, filled with gorgeously silly moments, but it never falls into slightness.
The novel is narrated by an eram, Myles Burnham (a hack pornographer who yearns to be a writer of serious literature), in conversation with the conservative Sir John Westgate, after the success of the erams' communist overthrow of the worldwide capitalist system. Thigmoo is an outrageous romp of self-aware, naive optimism. The story screams "if only things could work out this well!" while it is simultaneously all too cognizant of the near impossibility of a utopian outcome to human history.
Myles turns the whole story into a soap opera (much to Sir John's constant irritation), gleefully mixing fact and fabulation (earning Sir John's constant reprimands), but nevertheless manages to win over both the audience and the reluctant Sir John to the pull of his narrative, despite the fact that both Sir John and the audience know the outcome of the tale. Thigmoo adroitly demonstrates that page-turning suspense can be achieved in the manner of the telling, and not only by keeping the reader guessing.
In the end, Thigmoo recounts a conflict between synthetic and organic life, but unlike the clichés, this time the artificial intelligences wage war against humanity to liberate it from itself and from its dependence on machines. In Thigmoo, the artificial life forms win and so does the whole world. In real life, both the Earth and humanity would be very lucky indeed if any powerful entity truly cared that much. Humans sure don't. | December 1999
Claude Lalumière -- a freelance writer, editor and translator -- is the founder and former owner of Montreal's Nebula Bookshop. His book reviews, essays, and articles can be found on his Web site.