Bruce Balfour,
The Digital Dead
(Ace, 2003)

While I would not call Bruce Balfour's The Digital Dead a full-fledged sequel to his novel The Forge of Mars, the story does pick up where that earlier novel left off. The book takes Balfour's unusual hero, Tau Wolfsinger, a NASA technician with a genius for artificial intelligence and an untraditional Navajo background, on an entirely new adventure, the most intense action of which takes place in cyberspace.

Having returned safely from Mars, where Tau helped destroy a secret Russian military base and his girlfriend Kate McCloud acquired a powerful mental connection with an alien A.I. who appeared to her in the form of the ancient Egyptian god Thoth, the happy couple hopes to finally begin a normal life together on Earth. Alas, within two months, mystery men attempt to kidnap Kate and kill Tau, throwing both of their lives into turmoil once again.

After two novels, the mysterious Davos Group, an Illuminati-like secret society basically controlling the world from deep within the shadows, still remains -- in my opinion -- too much of a mystery to the reader, but fortunately Balfour does follow up on a few events from The Forge of Mars that seemed to serve little purpose in the earlier novel. Sen. Aaron Thorne, the son (genetically speaking, anyway) of Tau's late mentor Max Thorne, now makes his power play for the presidency, acquiring a type of control over current-President Rex King that even the most ruthless of political advisers can only dream about. But the renegade genius Tau Wolfsinger stands in his way as a potential and annoyingly unpredictable threat to his aspirations when Tau becomes privy to certain information regarding Thorne's involvement with Elysian Fields. Ostensibly, Elysian Fields is a digital resting place for the dead. Virtually everyone now has a network slot on the back of his or her neck, wherein a special digital chip is encoded with all of a person's memories. Thus, through the wonders of modern technology, family members can now visit with the life-like avatars of their departed love ones whenever they like (if they can afford it). Thorne attempts to use "the digital dead" to influence the political motivations of the living; it is a scheme that would make LBJ proud, but it comes across as needless and a little silly to me.

The Digital Dead features a memorable cast of characters, some of whom we met in a more limited fashion in The Forge of Mars. Undoubtedly the most fascinating group of people in Balfour's future Earth are the Veggies; these individuals are super-environmentalists who refuse to eat plants as well as animals; instead, they have adapted photosynthetic patches for their bodies so they can live on sunlight alone. Equally eccentric are Brother Digital and the Pingers, purveyors of a new religion wherein illumination is to be found with the mysterious virtual-reality Entity.

Before the cybernetic showdown for the ages comes to a head, you will witness the most unbelievable political assassination of all time, marvel at the theft of a dead former president's digital identity and encounter some of the most incredible and daring advertising campaigns ever dreamed of. Balfour, an expert in the field of artificial intelligence, somehow holds the entire story together, but character development remains, for me, a weakness in his writing. All of his characters, including Tau in particular, never seem real or life-like to me. Those who love visionary hard science fiction will be fascinated by the ideas Balfour introduces in The Digital Dead, and many readers may adore his larger-than-life, inarguably unique characters, but I personally felt as if I was watching life-like holograms running inside a simulator rather than real people living extraordinary future lives.

- Rambles
written by Daniel Jolley
published 26 June 2004

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