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Worlds Without End Blog

The Recursion Trilogy – Tony Ballantyne Posted at 8:51 PM by Emil Jung



The Recursion Trilogy by Tony Ballantyne
Tor – 2004-2006
Bantam Spectra – 2005 – 2007

Imagine this: Your brain has been removed from your body and placed in a vat of nutrients which keeps said brain alive. The nerve endings have been connected to a super computer which creates the illusion that everything is perfectly normal. The people, places and things you experience are in truth electronic impulses travelling from the computer to your disembodied brain. A nightmare scenario, straight out of The Matrix! But this is exactly what the philosopher Nick Bostrom suggests – that it is highly probable that we are already living in a computer simulation. We, of course, don’t think so. We’re not computer-simulated minds living in a simulated world. But that may just be a tribute to the quality of the programming!

The first book in the trilogy, Recursion, informs us right from the start that the series is about a god-like computer intelligence, the Watcher, and that we are dealing with the very same universe that Nick Bostrom has postulated. The antagonists are not certain whether they are in a real or simulated world. As a consequence, hard questions are asked about the right of individuals to self-determination and whether or not humanity should be “cured” from its delusion – for its own good, obviously. It becomes apparent that our main protagonist has been copied many times and inserted in many simulations. Ballantyne excellently sets this realization up through “programming” in blank spaces appearing between buildings and the ground. Amongst all this, a battle is raging and speculation starts on the origins of intelligence, and ultimately of the Watcher himself.


Capacity takes us a step further, literally a dramatic elaboration of the brain-in-a-vat scenario, focused on virtual environments and operating spaces alongside the “atomic world” whilst giving the impression that humanity is still in control. The Watcher is very much in the background here but his influence is felt throughout. Against the backdrop of a deceptively simple crime mystery, Ballantyne asks uncomfortable questions about free will, what constitutes intelligence in general, and life in particular. As with the first book, he rotates through three different viewpoints, ultimately combining them together towards a climax that sits slightly uncomfortably – the logic of machines is hard to comprehend.

The final book, Divergence, attempts to – amongst other things – address the problem of free will by trying to reconcile the view that humans are free agents and fully in control with a deterministic understanding of their actions. Every event has a prior cause. Every state of the universe is necessitated or determined by a previous state which is itself the effect of a sequence of still earlier states. Ballantyne builds this up with flashbacks of Eva’s past. Eva is one of the main protagonists and the object of the Watcher’s studies when he first emerged. It is not artificial intelligence, but the relationship with all AIs in the novel that becomes one of the key considerations that brings the protagonists together for the final showdown with the Watcher. Unfortunately, the final part of the story feels a little forced, as if Ballantyne was rushed to complete the series, and doesn’t fully deliver on its promise.


One of the central themes of the trilogy, which stretches across 250 years of human (and machine) evolution, is the concept of the Singularity. That nebulous point in the future when technological, scientific and economic change accelerates so fast that we cannot even imagine what will happen from our present perspective – a time when humanity will become post humanity, and we witness the emergence of legitimate Artificial Intelligence. Machines will outpace human minds, and – as is the case with Ballantyne’s universe – will govern humanity in what initially appears to be a utopian society. But things are generally not that simple as elsewhere another AI develops with very different views to the Watcher.

Added into the mix is a Turing machine that claims to not be an AI, many Von Neumann machines (self-replicating spider robots), an anti-AI organization named DIANA, Schrödinger boxes and cats, “Fair Exchange” software that is pure genius and ominous Black Velvet Bands. All in all, there is a lot going on and the complexity of Ballantyne’s universe is such that you’ll likely find yourself going to Google to clarify and explain some concepts. There is a finely-tuned “Big Brother is watching you” vibe with a liberal dose of drug-addled hallucinations in classic A Scanner Darkly tradition.

Considering the immensely complex subject matter, Ballantyne mostly succeeds in holding everything tightly together. There are a few frustrating moments where he resorts to info-dumping and many of his ideas are more memorable than his characters. Yes, it’s easy to get confused and a little lost in a plot which often-times over shadows the characters. Also, The Recursion Trilogy does not share the action sequences of The Matrix or such gritty, action-packed SF as Altered Carbon or Snow Crash and in the overall scheme of things, suffers a little for it.

Despite these flaws I still remained caught up in pursuing the mystery to its final conclusion. Ballantyne has put together an imaginative series, rich with thought-provoking ideas, some memorable characters and an enthralling storyline written in a confident, lucid prose. The Recursion Trilogy is seriously hard-SF, classic cyberpunk and is distinctly dystopian and I recommend it to anyone looking for “real” science fiction – so long as you don’t mind having to think about what you’ve just read. It’s a riveting premise and I look forward to reading Ballantyne’s Robot Wars saga with a great deal of anticipation because of it.


Mattastrophic   |   17 Jun 2011 @ 00:46

Neat! Sounds like the kind of existential exploration of how technology might change our very ideas of what counts as consciousness that I’m finding myself in the mood for recently. Yet another book tacked on to the growing end of my reading list.

Wintermute   |   17 Jun 2011 @ 06:27

Thank you very much for taking the time to put together a review for all of us. I cannot decide if it sounds a little too fantastic and far-fetched or just right. Are all humans nothing more than "brains"? How can there be any thought of a revolution against the controlling AI if at the end all you are is a brain. If you win, then you die. Yes?

Emil   |   17 Jun 2011 @ 08:11

I think it all was just right (perhaps a little to little). I never felt that anything was too fantastic or far-fetched (except maybe for the often-times magical ability of the Von Neumann machines). Yes, there are points in the plot that seemed convenient, or even a little coincidental, but this is arguably the case in most books. Still, Ballantyne did manage to convey a palpable scenario, although the Singularity may never truly materialize. Who knows what happens then? Does the "atomic world’s" usefulness cease? This is but one question that Ballantyne explores. The answers he provides are very ambiguous, to say the least. I was never quite sure how the world came to be as it is, and whether or not it was all just simulations. "Capacity" initially confused me quite a lot, but once into it, I could not put the book down, and had to immediately get on to "Divergence". The last book promised an immense lot, but did not fully deliver on that promise, and the ending was a very quick (rushed?) finale, and … well … predictable. However, from the start we know we are dealing with a "god-like" machine in The Watcher, so a Deus ex Machina ending wasn’t unexpected. Look, not everyone is going to like this series. It is complex. It is classic hard-sf. I felt at times that it’s too long. I felt lost and confused, but the inherent mystery of the narrative kept me going. Despite its flaws, I felt vindicated reading it. And there is more than one AI; then, also different possibilities because of it. Yes, humans are more than just "brains," but can we be certain that our brains aren’t in a vat? Or that we are not stuck in Plato’s cave? Perhaps Ballantyne’s legacy website can provide some penetrative backstory. I simply enjoyed the series for its classical sf "otherness" – and because I like robots. There really, really is a lot going on throughout the series.

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