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%T Arachne
%A Lisa Mason
%I Avon
%D February 1992
%O paperback, US$4.50
%P 263
%G ISBN 0-380-70911-2

The blurb on the back cover of this book calls Arachne " 'L.A. Law' scripted by William Gibson" and it's a fair description. In Mason's near-future San Francisco, electronically wired attorneys and executives complete mergers and trials in microseconds in a cyberspace clone called "telespace." Unfortunately, this imaginative effort to depict the movers and shakers of a cyberpunk universe is crippled by credibility problems in three areas:

1. The Technology. At one point early in the text, Mason refers to sentient mainframe computers that "downloaded their autoexec.bat files into portables." But autoexec.bat files are a feature of the MS-DOS operating system, and even today, mainframes (those that are left) don't use DOS. Nor is it likely that any electronic intelligence sophisticated enough to be sentient would do so.

2. The Law. Later, our protagonist, Carly Nolan, wins her first big case for a megacorporate client by using an archaic real property law doctrine called adverse possession. She argues, in effect, that the owner/originator of the software in question should lose title to it because he did not take action to prevent the megacorporation from using it over the past 20 years. This argument accurately invokes the adverse possession doctrine, but I suspect that intellectual property law has already evolved a much better solution to this kind of problem. At the very least, it seems incredible to assume that intellectual property law would not have evolved a more advanced solution by the time period of the book.

3. The Concept. The crux of the plot turns upon the existence of a thriving black market among the AIs -- sentient computer intelligences -- in "archetypes," stray energy patterns in telespace that typically take the form of mythic monsters. The AIs believe that obtaining of these archetypes will allow them to obtain true human-style sentience and pursue them despite the fact that the trade is highly illegal and archetype-theft tends to kill the human that has generated the archetype. But Mason not only fails to explain how mere possession of such energy forms could change a being's consciousness, she doesn't give the reader any reason to believe that the AIs, who possess such things as "ambiguity-tolerance" circuits, emotions, and prejudices, are less sentient or less "conscious" than the humans they prey upon. She hints that humans are "creative" in a way that AIs cannot be, but many individual examples of homo sapiens who are not creative are no less human for lacking that particular attribute.

These problems make it hard for even a marginally savvy reader of sf to take "Arachne" seriously as science fiction. However, Mason is good enough with language and imagery that if she remembers to do her homework, her next novel should be worth reading. [CCO]

Up to Eric's Home Page To Index Fri Dec 13 15:45:52 EST 1901

Eric S. Raymond <esr@snark.thyrsus.com>