Book Review: “Aeternum Ray”
Without even reading a word of Tracy Atkins’s novel, Aeternum Ray, you have to start by giving him a pat on the back for courage. In everything from its form to its substance, Aeternum Ray is a challenging novel. Going well against the grain of most futurist and transhumanist fiction – with their dystopian and gritty elements – Atkins attempts to explore the idea of a post-Singularity future from a genuinely optimistic viewpoint. By its very nature a post-Singularity future is effectively impossible to speculate on, and yet, that is exactly what Aeternum Ray attempts to do.
The novel takes the form of the memoirs of William Babington, a man born of our our time who lives to see a technological singularity and than catalog the course of the future. In the opening chapters of the novel, Babington writes of his experiences growing up in the 80′s and 90′s and slowly moves onto the earth-shaking events of his later natural life. Although there is hardly anything revolutionary expressed in these chapters, they do offer an insightful, almost-anthropological look at our modern era, and the predictions of the near future are both exciting and well-conceived. Although Atkins does place an almost narrow-minded focus on the development of future AIs, to the exclusive of other technological progress, it is easy to offer some literary liberties given the expansive goal of covering four decades in as many chapters.
Not too long into the novel though, Atkins introduces the novel’s titular concepts, a post-Singularity AI named Ray, and the virtual universe it creates, Aeternum. Although the novel continues in the form of Babington’s memoirs, its true focus is on how Ray and Aeternum change the course of human history. While the idea of exploring such an inconceivable future is the most exciting draw of the novel, this is also unfortunately where its cracks begin to show. Attempting to envision a future so technologically advanced that it borders on the magical, Atkins is forced to make a number of compromises. Fully exploring such a future means losing our ability to easily relate to it, so the narrator is forced into the framework of Aeternum, a virtual paradise that is effectively divorced from the technology that supports it. Having such a hyper-advanced civilization also poses challenges to conventional dramatic structure; with too advanced and utopian a society, what could possibly serve as a sufficient source of conflict? Even with the introduction of two potential existential threats to humanity, the threats feel at times contrived, and Atkins is forced to tone down the rate of technological progress to keep things interesting. While not every novel needs to follow the model of exposition, rising action, conflict, climax, and resolution, choosing a non-traditional structure is probably not the best of ideas for a beginning writer. Many of these issues, are unfortunately the result of this being a self-published novel. Without the benefits of a professional editor, the book suffers from grammatical errors and irregular pacing.
Despite bogging down with superfluous exposition midway through the book, Aeternum Ray gathers steam towards the end and becomes a truly enjoyable novel. In some ways, it would be better off packaged as a much shorter novella, with its content trimmed down to just the essentials, but the trick to the book is to stop viewing it as simply a work of fiction. What Aeternum Ray really is is a work of speculative futurism, disguised in the form of fictional memoirs. For all that Aeternum Ray lacks in action or drama, it makes up for in its creative and expansive vision. Obviously, speculative futurism isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but provided that you are going into it with the right perspective, Aeternum Ray can be an extremely engaging read. The ideas that it expresses as both imaginative and convincing, and it is easy to find yourself just as engrossed in the novel’s concepts as in its actual plotline. All that aside, at $4.99 a copy, it’s easily a better read and more intellectually stimulating than any of the trash you’ll pull out of the second-hand bargain bin for the same price. My advice: give it a try.
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