The Resurrected Man—Sean Williams
Cover by Shaun Tan
Voyager/HarperCollinsPublishersAustralia, April 1998, pb, 609pp, $14.95
Reviewed by Russell Blackford
The Twinmaker is a serial killer with a difference, a sadistic murderer with the resources at his disposal to locate and select victims from across the world. All of them look like Marylin Blaylock, a detective with the MIU-the Matter-transference Investigative Unit-which is inevitably involved in handling the case. The Twinmaker kills copies of carefully-chosen individuals, copies made with d-mat technology. D-mat (as in "dematerialise") is a futuristic teleportation process that relies on scanning whatever needs to be transported, reducing it to energy in doing so, while obtaining information about it at a deep enough level for its reintegration as matter at the other end of its journey. The MIU exists solely to investigate d-mat-related crime.
Marylin Blaylock is the ex-lover of Jonah McEwen, the "resurrected man" of the title, who is discovered suspended in a spa bath full of life-preserving gel, which has been used to maintain him in a state of minimal animation for three years. His withered body is revived with the aid of nano-technological therapies, but his mind contains a period of blank memory from shortly before his immersion in the gel.
Readers of Williams' first solo novel, Metal Fatigue, will expect the author to sustain a complex, baffling plot for The Resurrected Man's six hundred pages, and this is precisely what he delivers. Williams has worked out in great detail the technologies available in the year 2069 (though not entirely convincingly), the institutions that will provide and regulate them, how they might work, and their feedback effects on social structures and individual lives. His achievement is then to write a mystery thriller whose endless twists and turns exploit all those details: technological, institutional, individual and social. Eventually, the Twinmaker's identity is revealed, the killer's methods and motives are uncovered, and loose ends are tied up cleverly.
The Resurrected Man is compelling reading, a book that promises much then keeps its promises. Although Williams lays on an enormous amount of detail, the pace never flags. He has mastered the art of teasing the reader into turning pages, the crucial elements that will solve the mystery being snatched away from us just when we expect them to be given. In good whodunnit style, the book is driven by the question: "Who or what is the Twinmaker?" Possibly, the villain is Jonah McEwen, who may have copied himself to create a perfect alibi and erased his own memory. Perhaps it is McEwen's supposedly dead stepfather, Lindsay Carlaw, a brilliant researcher in artificial intelligence. Or is it one of the employees of the MIU, or of Kudos Technologies Incorporated, which controls the d-mat technology? It certainly appears that an employee of KTI must be involved in some way in order to infiltrate the company's heavily-protected transportation network. As the plot thickens, Williams demonstrates his ability to raise and defeat the reader's expectations.
Clearly, this book is a significant achievement, one that cements its author's place as one of the best writers on the Australian SF scene. It is enjoyable, suggestive, thorough, page-turning, elegantly resolved. To ask for more may be churlish. Still, here goes. While the ultimate solution is, indeed, elegant, given the book's premises, there are aspects that could have been more satisfying. When the Twinmaker's motivation is finally revealed, this solves a number of problems at once, while opening up new depths of interest, but it never seems psychologically likely, certainly not to the extent of creating that Aha! feeling, as if the clues were there all the time. Also, the Twinmaker's actual identity (but not motivation) is suggested too early.
A more problematic criticism relates to the book's vision of advanced technology in the twenty-first century. It would be absurd to take issue with this as if SF writers set out to be prophets. Moreover, the operation and social impact of d-mat and related applications such as "d-med" are worked out impressively. The difficulty is that d-mat seems too futuristic for the general matrix of technology and culture in the book, something that may be allowable in a shorter work, but much more a problem in something this sustained and realistic in mode.
Consider how d-mat works. Apparently it involves devices to reduce the matter contained in macro-level objects to energy (without planet-busting explosions resulting as one might expect from the Einsteinian mass-energy equation), to analyse the deep physical structures of these objects in the process (in sufficient detail to allow for their replication), and to re-synthesise them. The dematerialisation of objects into energy and the synthesis of energy into matter involve maintaining a vast pool of energy which Williams wisely does not attempt to quantify in traditional scientific units.
Such a magical level of technology does not fit easily into a near-future world that has otherwise been worked out cautiously. Nano-technological manipulation, biomedical technologies and computerisation generally are shown at a level that is extraordinary by current standards but carefully extrapolated, and not especially advanced by comparison with the speculations of, say, Vernor Vinge or Hans Moravec--writers who predict a run-away transformation of society by some kind of super-intelligence in the first half of the next century. My point is not that Moravec and others are right, and Williams wrong. It is that Williams seems to err on the side of caution in presenting next century's technological miracles, with d-mat providing a glaring exception, almost as if it belongs in a different book, set further in the future.
Perhaps this criticism just points up the difficulty of ever trying to lay out a plausible and consistent vision of the development of future technologies. On the other hand, The Resurrected Man is so carefully worked out, particularly in raising social social and ethical issues about the innovations that it describes, that it does appear more than most near-future SF books to invite questions about its overall technological vision. Certainly, its tone consistently asks us to take it seriously as a piece of grimly realistic future noir. There is no sense of a fantasy element or of surrealism, whimsy or play, such as might justify the quasi-magical technologies in many SF books. In this sense only, it seems like a less coherent achivement than Metal Fatigue (stylistically, it is even better).
Whether or not I am right about this aspect, I am convinced more than ever that Sean Williams is a major talent. I look forward to his next book with excitement.
©1998 Russell Blackford.