Sunrise Alley by Catherine Asaro
My rating: 5 of 5 stars (10/10)
The theme of this book is age old and timeless: What is it that makes us human?
The setting is not. This is Earth in 2033, where information and nano-technology (and probably other sciences not specifically relevant to the book) have advanced at a great pace. Dr Samantha Bryton has been a leader in her field; she works with and develops artificial intelligences.
In this book, Asaro develops the concept of two different types of artificial intelligence. The first, AI, is artificial intelligence as we generally consider it now; it is limited by its programming but able to think within it. The second she calls EI, which stands for "evolving intelligence". This is AI that has surpassed its programming, becoming sentient. Now, that intelligence is not limited by programming and will evolve through experience and learning. Sam is one of the best in her field, but after blowing the whistle on ethically dubious research and suffering the following publicity, she has retired to her secluded home for some much needed time to herself.
Her solitude is broken when, after a storm, she finds a man washed up on her beach. He says his name is Turner Pascal and he needs her help. She soon discovers he isn't kidding. Technically, Turner is what is called a forma - an engineered body with an EI brain. But, he insists, his mind was imaged moments after he died, and he is still Turner Pascal and he is human.
It takes a little convincing, but Sam believes him. He has escaped from the madman (and genius) who made him and soon both he and Sam find themselves on the run, not knowing whom they can trust. The story takes them from California to captivity somewhere in the Himalayas and back to the States, constantly trying to stay ahead of their pursuers and find out just exactly what is going on. All the while, Turner is trying to figure what and who he is now, certain he is human, but discovering he is also more. Luring him on are tales of Sunrise Alley, supposedly a haven for EIs who want to be free individuals.
Technically this makes up the third in a series with The Veiled Web and The Phoenix Code, but there is no requirement to have read the other two. The link is little more than a reference to the characters of The Veiled Web in The Phoenix Code and to the characters of The Phoenix Code in Sunrise Alley. It is also interesting that the technology and terms in this book match many that occur in Asaro's Skolian Imperialate series. I have a vague idea that she has said that the Skolian books occur in the future of these books, but I can't remember where I heard it or if it is even true.
So what did I think? I'll admit right at the start that I'm biased. I love Catherine Asaro's books and I started this already predisposed to like it. I certainly did. It was a little slow to start, and the plot is very convoluted - you have to pay attention, especially to who is who, since that occasionally changes. It's about science and technology and how they may change they ways we define our humanity. It's about dealing with the ghosts of our past and about two people learning to expand their views of who they are and how they care for each other.
I found this a very fascinating and enjoyable read. Sam is immediately a likeable character and if Turner seems a little naive at the beginning, part of that may come from having recently died and being artifically reborn. He certainly develops and matures over the course of the book. At the end, he is perhaps both more human and less human, and a much stronger, deeper man for it. Sam, despite her work with EIs in the past - if not one in such a human and straight out "pretty" body - finds she carries her own share of prejudices that she must acknowledge and overcome. At the end, they are two people who fit together and are determined to stay together.
Sunrise Alley is not a romantic tale with a few futuristic sounding words thrown in. There is science in this science fiction. Asaro has a PhD in physics and her scientific background and knowledge shows in all her books. She has a great talent for combining science with an understanding of human nature and an ability to create strong, flawed characters that engage the reader.
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