Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Bookshelf: I, Phone

In this post, I'm going to be talking about a book I picked up at Eastercon: I, Phone, by David Wake. I have the paperback edition, but this is also available in eBook form via Kindle and Smashwords.The setting is the not-so-distant future, in which smart phones are considerably smarter, and more self-aware, than their owners. It kicks off with the hero of the piece, Jeeves, rated at 157 IQ or 2.5 Rossum, whichever you'd rather, recording and reporting on the murder of his owner, Alice Wooster, via his Black Box app. Except, as it turns out, she doesn't die; her attacker does, and when his bullet-riddled corpse is discovered with Alice the only logical suspect, Jeeves, good net-citizen that he is, promptly alerts the authorities. Thus begins the first of what will prove to be many escape attempts, as Alice and Jeeves do their damndest to get out of the clutches of the law, and the mysterious group who also seems to want them both dead. Incidentally, if anyone was wondering whether the naming of Jeeves and Wooster was a coincidence, I think you can stop wondering.

The plot thickens when Jeeves discovers that the mysterious group after Alice's blood happens to have something to do with the latest virtual reality technology, intended to upgrade everyone's VR goggles so that they have something pleasant to look at when they walk through London. Gone are the homeless and urban decay, replaced by pretty much whatever the user fancies. This narrative device also allows Jeeves some freedom of movement, since - as a creature of the internet - he can download himself into the virtual reality, becoming essentially independent of his physical constraints. This becomes very useful later in the plot, when Jeeves' physical form is captured by the mysterious agency, and he's forced to become a kind of techno-ghost, haunting his way through a virtual cityscape. His avatar might change from Cary Grant to a less homosexual Stephen Fry, according to the whims of his owner Alice, but Jeeves remains Jeeves throughout; the sensible one, the planner, the thinker, whose ultimate goal is to keep his owner out of harm's way. Even though, as his ethics programming dictates, he's the one who sometimes puts her in harm's way to begin with.

Consider this:


"Hello, Alice, it's still early," I say. "There is rain due later in the afternoon. Your appointments today are -"

"Jeeves, shut up!"

"Sorry, Miss."

"Why did you remove your battery?"

"I didn't. I can't."


"I don't have any arms."

I appear to be writing a contemporaneous natural language log, but the only App I have that would do that is the Black Box App, which is only activated in an emergency. I wonder why.

Alice is looking around the flat, desperately. I wonder why.

"Alice," I ask. "What's the matter?"

"There's a dead body in my bedroom."


She cradles me in her arms and carries me to the bedroom before thrusting me out as if she wants to take a photograph. Alice isn't wearing any clothes, so perhaps we've reached that inevitable day when she's run out of fresh laundry. The room is a mess. I already have a note to sort out the maid service, along with adjusting her exercise avatar, so maybe I ought to increase its level of urgency. That's strange, I only have two notes on file, which seems a very small number. However, rather than worry about that now, I focus on what Alice is trying to show me. True enough, there's a dead body in the bed. It's male, tall, looking up. He has a third eye in his forehead as if a camera lens has been inserted. He's been shot. I search around for his identity and emergency protocol, but there's no phone within wi-fi range. I'm at a loss.

Wake's strengths are in little moments like these, that capture the essence of the scene and also the characters in it. There are some brilliant scenes to be enjoyed here; my personal favorite came when Jeeves discovers a little colony of desperate souls, people who lost their smart phones and who now have no idea what to do with themselves. They sit, lost and alone, in cafes, trying to fiddle with invisible touch screens, playing games that nobody but them can see.

Where he sometimes falls short is the larger narrative. From the moment Jeeves becomes a virtual ghost, everything gets a bit muddy, and towards the end I couldn't help but think that the only reason Jeeves abandoned his casing was because Wake couldn't think how else to carry the plot along. A protagonist who can't move under his own power isn't much good to a writer. There's enough technobabble to carry the concept, but I began to wonder whether the concept was strictly necessary.

That, and Alice is underwritten. Jeeves' devotion to her may be programmed in, but the reader's devotion isn't, and after a time it becomes increasingly difficult to see why Jeeves is so attached to her. It doesn't help that she all but vanishes for significant portions of the plot, thus depriving her of spotlight time that might have made her more interesting.    

Those two caveats aside, I thoroughly enjoyed I, Phone. Science fiction isn't a genre I read much any more, and novels like this make me wonder why I don't, when there's stuff as good as this out there. It captures the best thing about fiction: it makes the world we live in suddenly seem magical, without using any ingredients other than the ones we're already familiar with. I first read this in a rush while Eastercon was still ongoing, and that should tell you something; that, at a time when there were a thousand and one other things to do, I couldn't put it down. It's rare when a book does that, and for that reason I'd recommend I, Phone to anyone with an interest in science fiction, smart phones, or the modern world. It's grand stuff!

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