Review: Beautiful Intelligence, by Stephen Palmer

cover of Beautiful IntelligenceBeautiful Intelligence is Stephen Palmer’s ninth novel. It takes a markedly different tack to its predecessor, the extraordinarily peculiar Hairy London, which I reviewed for Amazing Stories last year (a sizable chunk of which review is quoted at the back of the current volume by way of advertisement).  This new novel is set towards the end of the century, nominally in 2092 (though we’ll return to that later), when the cheap oil has run out, the West is struggling through a far more transformative depression than that of the 1930s, and Africa is thriving thanks to the mainstream development of solar energy.

The story begins some time after married A.I. researchers Manfred and Leonora Klee have fled from the Ichikawa Laboratories in Japan as the only way of getting free of their contract with Aritomo Ichikawa’s corporation. Quite why, other than a lack of privacy, they decided to so dramatically break their contract is never explicitly explained, though the reader gathers along the way that Aritomo was not the easiest, nor most ethical employer. That we are not given an exact reason for the break means that it serves largely as a device to add a sense of danger and a need for constant movement to what follows; Ichikawa isn’t a man to settle contractual disagreements in court. He wants his top researchers back in the lab, and has the corporate espionage resources, both technological and muscle on the ground, to initiate a global hunt.

Which means that Manfred and Leonora must go underground, continuing their research while being ever vigilant against capture. They are soon joined by another researcher, Joanna, and more surprisingly, Yuri, Aritomo’s son. By the time we meet them in Chapter 1 they are hiding out in Malta and the small group has been augmented by interface expert Dirk and security specialist Hound. Completing the line-up is their focus of attention, Zeug, a quantum computer embedded in a synthetic human-like body.

Meanwhile Ichikawa is tracking the escapees through the Nexus, a Japanese-originated successor to the internet which attempts to record and make publicly searchable as much human activity as possible: every computer interaction, every observation by a CCTV camera anywhere. It is Hound’s job to keep the AIteam at liberty, using every counter-surveillance and survival technique he knows.

But then Manfred absconds again and establishes a new research team in America. Where Leonora felt it most productive to concentrate on a single quantum computer, Zeug, Manfred has come to believe that true A.I., that which gives the novel its title, can only arise from the interaction of minds attempting to understand one another. That regardless of processing power (or the number of neurons and pathways in a brain) intelligence only arises out of social connections.

Manfred, it’s worth remembering, is the title of the poem, or ‘metaphysical drama’ Lord Byron began writing only a few months after the events of 1816 which gave rise to a particularly influential novel by Mary Shelley. Manfred Klee’s story does have some parallels with that of Byron’s anti-hero, and Beautiful Intelligence never loses its head while paying due homage to Frankenstein. Leonora meanwhile was the heroine of Beethoven’s opera (written and revised variously between 1805-14), originally of that name, but eventually retitled and known today as Fidelio. In the opera, which concerns the struggle for liberty and justice, Leonora rescues her husband from prison, the resonances being more nebulous than those with Manfred, but the name is still suggestive.

Beautiful Intelligence alternates sequences with Leonora’s AIteam in Malta and later along the Mediterranean coast through Tunisia and Algeria, with Manfred’s BIteam as they develop new research around a group of nine ‘bis’, synthetic, child-like beings based on a revolutionary ‘biograin’ technology created by another researcher, Tsuneko June. The progress of the bis, as they begin to develop individual characters, is the most original and absorbing part of the novel. Of the colour coded bis, Indigo is especially intriguing. Meanwhile we are party to a series of speculations from various perspectives on the nature of intelligence, artificial or otherwise, intercut with Cyberpunk cat and mouse, seek and flee adventures.

While the AIteam appear to have built a post-modern Prometheus, the BIteam suffers attrition as they journey from Philadelphia to the West Coast of the US through the now largely depopulated interior. We are not told why – disease, civil unrest, migration, or some combination of all of these? – but the population of the US fell from 350 million to 50 million within five years of the new Depression. While overall the global population has grown to 10 billion. Europe is also partly depopulated, with, ironically, refugees flocking to the countries of Northern Africa.

You’ll notice I’ve twice mentioned aspects of Beautiful Intelligence which are not explained. This is typical of Stephen Palmer’s approach, in that sometimes he gives just enough to allow the imagination to fill in the gaps. And yet he has created a rich, complex vision of a relatively near future which in some ways is familiar, in others, startlingly alien. Unlike the wild fantasia of Hairy London, this is hard science fiction, rooted in extrapolation of current trends and developments. Though given the future always surprises us – who would have predicted smartphones and our intensely wired world 25 years ago? – he includes a lot of strange technology which he simply allows us to figure out from context.

Beautiful Intelligence is, as it needs to be, a novel filled with ideas, which it explores through a set of quirky and interesting, if not always engaging or particularly profoundly studied characters, and which moves at a brisk pace with a good balance of inquiry, intrigue and (occasionally violent) adventure. It is also a novel which is down to earth, people occasionally need to go to the toilet, but which never unnecessarily crude or graphic. It is human, humane and compassionate.

Not everything quite works. Sometimes Palmer’s fecund imagination seems to run away with its own exuberance to the extend of not aligning every detail or tidying the rough edges. For example, I mentioned at the beginning of this review that the events of the novel might take place in 2092. We are certainly told so more than once. But then we are also told that Rosalind, a minor character, ‘had been rich’ in that same year, but sold up her business when the ‘economic slide’ began and moved to the countryside. This is clearly past tense, something that happened some years prior. And given we are also told about how the USA lost most of its population within five years of the crash beginning, it would seem the story can not be taking place in 2092 after all, but more likely in the early years of the next century. This is not a case of ambiguity, but a bit of a muddle. Equally, the Nexus itself seems more like what the internet might become, rather than an entirely new technology which replaces it, and I was not convinced anyone would opt for the dubious advantages of a surgically implanted third eye against both the medical risks and the tremendous social disadvantages such an enhanced vision would entail.

But these are quibbles. Beautiful Intelligence is a bracingly imaginative novel. By choosing to operate within a realistic, post-crash, dystopian Cyberpunkish framework Stephen Palmer has written his most accessible and commercial work to-date. One can imagine it making a proper science fiction film, closer to the spirit of Blade Runner and Inception than the superhero flicks which dominate much of current genre cinema. With its narrative spanning Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Africa and North America, a cast of characters which prominently features several intelligent, resourceful women in positive ways, Leonora, Tsuneko, as well as Pouncey, security expert for the BIteam, and incorporating a multi-ethnic cast of characters – Dirk is black, Hound part Turkish – this is a work which looks to a diverse global future with excitement and verve.


Beautiful Intelligence is published by Infinity Plus Books and available in paperback and ebook formats

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