Robert Sheckley’s 1959 Immortality, Inc. is the story of a man who dies in a car accident, only to wake up a century in the future in a new body. A sharp work of satire, Sheckley was riffing off a lot of things—the delusions of capitalism and the meaning of mortality primary among them. Rosalie Warren’s debut novel Lena’s Nest (2015, Indie-Go) uses the same premise, but moves in a different, far more conventional, direction.
Awaking into normal life, Lena has trouble believing she’s anywhere but 2014 at the outset of the novel. Slowly but surely she is convinced, however, that she is now in 2105. The trick is, she exists only virtually. Once one of the premier researchers into robot sentience, it comes as a surprise to learn the rudiments of her work have evolved into machine intelligence, her mind now living in a hard drive. Robotic technology evolving in parallel, not only do the machines think, they also occupy a significant portion of society physically. With sentience transmuted through humanity, robots, and virtual existences, Lena has some intial trouble getting her head around life in the future. But it’s not her biggest issue. Her children now a century old but still possibly alive, she does all she can from inside her virtual world to find them.
In concept, Lena’s Nest opens as a brain-in-a-vat story but evolves into classic cyberpunk. Sentience existing outside biological bodies, and virtual life as common as normal life, the sounds of Neuromancer, Ghost in the Shell, Permutation City, Mindplayers, and other such works echo loudly. The presentation has such an innocence, however, the reader will perhaps wonder if Warren has read any prior genre material that uses or examines such tropes. Nothing new is done with the ideas, and if anything, Warren only waters them further down with a simplistic love story and a quest for family reunion that could have been implemented with less melodrama. I should note that the tropes are not utilized poorly, but thirty years after the cyberpunk wave rolled across the scene,not to mention all of the Singularity/post-human texts since, one can expect a more sophisticated presentation/examination of such ideas. Doing as much would have given Lena’s quest for identity more meaning, not to mention significantly enriched character and setting.
Naivete also appears in the novel’s inconsistencies. The AI robots in the story are capable of seemingly every emotion, including jealousy, fear, murderous intent, etc. But not hate. Hmm. The AI robots get enjoyment from v-sims of food and pleasure in biomechanical sex. But they are incapable of enjoying/appreciating music. Huh? Sex but not music? Due to things that occurred in the century while Lena was only zeroes and ones in a hard drive, there are people looking for her if she should ever appear in the real world again. Yet when Lena’s friends attempt to move her virtual self into a physical host, they try to recreate her real-world appaearance as much as possible. Great disguise! At one point in the novel Lena accepts she’s living in the future. But yet she continues to go through the motions of her old life in the virtual world. Why? Why would she read student emails or grade papers if the students are long gone, not to mention her research has been usurped by a century of further work? Eventually Lena’s frustrations with the virtual world bring her to a major life decision: “Switch me off!!” she screams, “But not now. After two days, so I have time to read the century of history I missed.” (I paraphrase.) Does that seem natural for a person who wants to end their life?
But most frustrating is that Lena doesn’t act or talk like a leading researcher and professor of the most cutting edge science of her day. Instead she often sounds like a teenager. I have a headache, I’m confused, I like you, You don’t love me, etc. Her voice is entirely unconvincing as an intelligent, in-control woman from academia. And this general problem extends to all the characters; their dialogue at times achieves tones of daytime television: “Lena, please…’ He (or rather his holo) was down on one knee now, beside her. ‘Please believe me. I love you with all my heart and I would never…”
While excuses can easily be drummed up to answer the questions raised above, the real reason is that Warren wanted to create drama, smaller to larger. If the drama were better presented, all could be taken in stride. It is not. The last quarter of the novel, for example, contains scenes that, while intended to get the heart thumping, are so contrived as to make the intelligent reader (or at least this reader) want to consign the novel to the bestseller pile. This ties back into the point that, had Warren been familiar with sf of yesteryear, e.g. Permutation City, she would know that a text already exists which works with the idea of duplicate virtual selves in more stimulating fashion, and thus able to provide her novel itsown flavor.
I’ve been laying into Lena’s Nest with a heavy stick, and it’s not entirely fair. There are some aspects done well. Warren does a good job sowing the important setting and plot details throughout the text. Pace is kept steady and engaging, and there is some element of suspense: something’s not right with Noah. What are his real intentions? What’s happening in the real world? What are Meks really like? Etc. And ultimately, I am not the target audience for this book. With the romance, emotional turbulence, search for lost children, etc., it’s undoubtedly better appreciated by woman looking for a light sf reading experience.
In the end, Lena’s Nest is a mainstream science fiction novel that creates a reasonably interesting futuristic scenario involving virtual existence, but which barely scrapes the surface of the ideas it presents. The tropes instead utilized for dramatic purposes, the book attempts to straddle the line between concept and entertainment, but due to the relative lack of ambition, ends up on the side of the latter. Struggling at the technique level, there are also issues with plot coherency and the voices/characters, particularly the general lack of singularity and maturity. Pat Cadigan’s Fools, Gibson’s Sprawl series, and Greg Egan’s Permutation City, and David Marusek’s “Wedding Album” are all stories which examine the idea of virtual existence in more robust fashion without the melodrama.