Saturday, August 8, 2009

In the Footprints of God

In the Footprints of God
© 2003 Greg Iles
459 pages

The saying Deus ex machina, literally translated as "god from the machine", refers to a plot device in which a superman power is used to suddenly resolve the conflict that drives plot. This could refer to all manner of things, but by extension it happens when the characters suddenly reveal something that stops the plot cold. In a way, it renders the entire story preceding it pointless. But literally, "god from the machine" -- that's an interesting phrase.

David Tennant is in quite a situation. He's been asked by the President of the United States, a friend of his brother's, to provide ethical oversight to a government program that will dwarf the Manhattan Project in importance if its goals are realized. The Trinity project seeks to create artificial -- nay, super-intelligence. By combing the reasoning and imaginative powers of the human mind with the processing speed of a supercomputer functioning at quantum levels, the Trinity program intends to create a computer that will make existing computers look like like abacuses in comparison. Given the controversy over the Manhattan Project about the use of nuclear weapons, the US President has decided to cover his posterior here by having ethical oversight.

So what happens when people start dying for trying to suspend the project so that problems of a serious nature can be investigated? You end up with a classic Hollywood movie plot: the compassionate doctor who knows too much being chased through the country, hounded by an amoral Government Agency and nearly killed by German mercenaries who only show emotion when they want to terrify you. If that sounds typical or even generic, keep reading: that isn't the end of the story. That only sets up the bulk of the novel, and it will bring Deus ex machina to mind -- but not yet.

David Tennant's story is told through the first-person, and his voice tells most of the story -- although curiously enough Iles does switch to third-person limited and focuses on the amoral government agency's security chief to tell the first part of the story from the vantage point of both pursued and pursuer. Later, she will fade, but the third-person will be used for two other characters. Tennant and his friend Dr. Fielding are responsible for stopping one of the most expensive government programs to date (save for wars) on the basis that scanning equipment related to the plot is causing brain dysfunctions among test subjects, including our own David Tennant -- who frequently dreams that he is seeing the history of the world through the eyes of God, and the history of Jesus through the eyes of Jesus. What makes this interesting is that Tennant is nonreligious: he's an atheist who would probably attach the humanist label to himself in the same way that Penn Cage did in The Quiet Game and Turning Angel.

This and the potential of the planned supercomputer (Deus ex machina) make a science fiction novel address metaphysics, but not in a "New Age" way. In Turning Angel I was impressed by Iles' ability to render characters of various skeptical bents and religious affiliations believable, and this continues here. Although Iles' characters do talk about God and the God-idea does feature in the plot, it is close to Contact. While I've never read The Tao of Physics, I've gotten a sense of its reputation from skeptics and my own skeptical sensibilities were not offended.

The book is quite strong: Iles has rendered another thriller, this one most interesting in touching on metaphysical issues. Unlike some of his previous works (Turning Angel again), violence and elaborate descriptions of sex are fairly absent. Although Iles could have easily shot himself in the foot writing about sensitive issues such as these -- religion, namely -- I don't think he does. This may be his most riveting book yet.

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