Review: The Armies of Memory

I got back from IETF to find John Barnes's The Armies of Memory waiting from me from Amazon, thus pretty much guaranteeing no work would be done yesterday. The Armies of Memory is the fourth and allegedly final in the Giraut Leones series which contained A Million Open Doors, Earth Made of Glass, and The Merchants of Souls, but manages to feel quite different. I'm not going to give away plot details below, but I will talk about the themes some and that inevitable leaks some information. You have been warned.

As with Iain Banks's Culture novels, technology has advanced to the point where all people's material needs are trivially satisfiable with no effort from them, and everything is run by AIs. The meta-theme of the previous three books was the question of how humans should live when all their material needs could be taken care of with no appreciable effort. Where Banks mostly dodges the question (people in the Culture seem to be effectively idle pleasure seekers, but he focuses on the Contact section, which actually does have something to do), Barnes imagines a variety (most not so nice) of ways in which people could manage to give their life meaning.

That's still present, but the more important theme is about what it means to be human in the first place. The AIs that run everything are sort of in the background in the first three books but become much more important here as Leones is finally forced to consider how they feel about being effectively slaves. (There's an interesting question here: there are lots of boring jobs that humans do fairly well but that we'd like to have computers do instead. But what if it takes a conscious mind to do them and conscious AIs don't want to either? And is it moral to make AIs that want to do them even if we can? Yes, of course this assumes that we know how to make AIs now, which we're a heck of a long way away from.) Barnes also spends a lot more time on the implications of the brain-transferring technology known as the psypx for people's behavior and relationships (this is big theme in Richard Morgan's Kovacs novels as well).

The big flaw here is probably Barnes's focus on Leones's sexual relationships. There are reasons in the plot for all of them, but it still felt a little tacked-on, like that's something Barnes wanted to write about so that's what we got. That's mostly something I noticed after reading the book, rather than during reading it, which I enjoyed a great deal.