Catherine Asaro,
The Veiled Web
(Bantam/Spectra, 1999)

The latest from this veteran SF writer is a blend of cyber-intrigue, Moroccan setting and romance with a strong ballet component drawn directly from the author's personal experience adding to the book's background versimilitude and emotional resonance.

In the summer of 2010, Web-surfing ballerina Lucia del Mar meets Rashid al Jazarr, the attractive inventor of a cutting-edge artificial intelligence system. Lucia and Rashid are kidnapped by international terrorists who covet his invention with the goal of using it for world domination through mind control by means of the device's powerful VR capabilities. While the protagonist couple manage to foil the abductors, in order to keep Lucia safe when they land in Morocco, Rashid arranges a hasty marriage. Cloistered in Rashid's traditional Islamic home, Lucia overcomes her loneliness by befriending both Rashid's vivid and colorful family and Zaki, the uncannily human computer program Rashid has designed.

When the terrorists strike again, Rashid's AI system is destroyed, but the unlikely marriage survives in this gripping yarn containing edifying subtexts dealing with millenial issues; with promoting cross-cultural tolerance and understanding; and with the potential and dangers of AI and VR, especially if they are combined.

Asaro's exceptional talent at combining science, adventure and compelling characterization is evident here in this near-future earthbound departure from her usual galaxy-spanning Skolian sagas. Here the author has done her homework, transcending cliches to portray the Moslems as the fully-dimensional, passionate people they are.

The Veiled Web also succeeds in telling an exciting story set in the world we know, at the dangerous intersection of cutting-edge technology and the eternal conflict of culture and the human heart, a narrative electric with the tension between tradition and modernity, science and art, female and male, cynicism and idealism. The book also satisfies as a story of romance, both of ideas and between a man and a woman attempting to build a bridge two very different societies, tellingly conveyed through the authentically detailed backgrounds -- a Moroccan household and community, computer geeks, and contemporary ballet companies. Surprisingly enjoyable was the scene-stealing, quirky and moving character of Zaki, a truly lovable artificial intelligence around which revolves this provocative and thoroughly entertaining tale that pleases on many levels.

[ by Amy Harlib ]



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