Book Review: Virtual Vengeance by Thomas JJ Starr

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  • Virtual Vengeance by Thomas JJ Starr
  • Paperback & Kindle
  • Paperback: 314 pages
  • Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (March 2, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1492236756

My main rule about writing is that there are no hard and fast rules about writing – the trick for me, like the stock dealers in Glengarry Glen Ross, is ABC (Always. Be. Comedic.). There is, however, an important heuristic that I feel very strongly about:

EXPOSITION = DEATH

That is not to say that too much exposition will kill the reader (being “bored to death” is still just a metaphor, after all). And too much exposition has never killed a writer (much as a bored reader may have wished it to). What too much exposition in a piece of writing will kill, and very effectively, is the pleasure a reader is taking in a work.

This is a common problem for first time novelists, who often have a tendency to over-explain. Over-explanation usually stems from one of two causes: either the writer does not trust the reader to understand what he is trying to say, or the writer doesn’t trust her own ability to convey what she wants to convey to the reader with subtlety. Or, a combination of the two. (That isn’t a third reason; at best, the combination would be a second and a half reason.)

This is an acute problem for speculative fiction novelists: because their stories often revolve around exotic technologies and the social changes that those technologies spur, a lot of explanation is necessary for the reader to understand the story. Although it has some strong scenes, Virtual Vengeance, the first science fiction novel by Thomas J. J. Starr, is marred by this problem.

The book starts well, with a scene of the main character, Russian Yuri Petrov, hacking people’s credit card information; he and his friend end up in big trouble with the police when they hack the wrong person’s account. It is a tense, tautly written scene with a real kick at the end.

Unfortunately, the next 80 or so pages (not quite a third of the 298 page novel) are almost entirely taken over by exposition. Some of it involves character back story, much of it involves descriptions of technologies. To be sure, a lot of this information is necessary for an appreciation of the story that is to come, but it’s like throwing water on the fire of the first scene: it is likely to dampen the reader’s anticipation in continuing to read. This section could have been trimmed and better integrated with the suspense plot.

Also, there are times where Starr violates the principle of “show, don’t tell.” Early in the novel, he describes one of its main female characters, Susan Hebb, this way: “Although her statuesque figure attracted the lustful attention of men, she was well practiced in deflecting unwelcome advances.” Since, in the scene, she was sharing a meal in a public place with Yuri, Starr could have illustrated the point by having a man give her unwanted attention and showing how she dealt with it instead of just telling us that that was the way things were.

There are, to be sure, some good ideas about technology in Virtual Vengeance. The main technology is a teaching machine that has largely made human teachers obsolete. Starr spins some interesting variations on his central tech, credibly showing how it could be modified to be used as a lie detector and even a machine that can upload a human consciousness to the Internet.

Starr also has some good ideas about the social impacts of his technologies. His main character, for instance, doesn’t like the teaching machines, believes that “the poor socialization exhibited by most people was the result of a childhood spent with teaching machines instead of interacting with humans.” I can totally see that as a principle (although there aren’t a lot of young people in the book, so, again, we don’t see the idea actually playing out; in fact, the most irascible character is Yuri, who is something of a curmudgeon even though he rarely uses the teaching machines).

Eventually, Yuri discovers that the teaching machines have been programmed to do do far more than just teaching. At this point, the thriller plot kicks in as the company that makes the machines first tries to buy him off, then tries to kill him off as Yuri tries to accumulate incontrovertible evidence of what they are doing. Although it never quite has the kick of that opening scene, the cat and mouse game between Yuri and the head of the company that makes the machines does maintain a credible level of suspense.

I’m not giving away anything when I mention that Yuri is, indeed killed – it’s on the back cover of the book. By this time, he has uploaded his consciousness to a supercomputer, and the cat and mouse game continues between cyber-Yuri and the company head, climaxing in a court battle that asks important questions about the legal status of human consciousnesses uploaded to computers. I love explorations of ideas like that; what Starr wrote on the subject was interesting, although I wish he had gone even deeper into it.

Virtual Vengeance has a lot of problems, but it contains just enough smart ideas to make me want to check out Thomas J. J. Starr’s next book.

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