[T]here is only one source of value in the marketplace, Human labor, and only one source of profit, unpaid Human labor. I had some trouble understanding this theory until I began to think of the differences between machines, which are a commodity, and Human Labor, which isn't. . . . You can't cheat a machine. But you can cheat people. That is, you can pay people less than the market value of the work they produce (you had better, if you want to make a profit because that's what profit is), but there's no way to pull off such sleight-of-hand with a machine. Machines cost what they cost, both to buy and maintain, period, and if you don't treat them properly, they will break down, and that's the owner's problem. . . . In short, if you misuse a machine in any way or scant on its upkeep, its working life will be shortened or stopped. . . . But an owner can do all these things to his Human workforce because he is in no way responsible for its maintenance. Its maintenance is its problem.Joanna Russ, What are We Fighting For?
Chris Moriarty's Ghost Spin, like Spin State (2003), the first novel in her Spin series, pointedly illustrates Russ's explication. In particular, it explores what happens when the lines between commodity and labor are blurred, as they are when the most valuable, powerful machines are sentient and the human laborers are "genetic constructs" grown from DNA owned by the corporations they work for and are thus, for the span of their usually short, malnourished, and generally miserable lives, bound to their employers the way serfs in medieval Europe were bound to the land they worked. The axes of biology and intelligence form the warp of the many stories that unfold within Moriarty's Spin series. The biological axis pegs every biological human according to how much of their DNA is owned by a corporation (or, outside UNSec-controlled space, the State), with the most privileged being the least beholden and the least privileged being 100% owned and incapable of reproducing. The intelligence axis puts machine intelligence at the least privileged end (to be abused and "slaved" because most machine intelligences are owned by corporations) and humans who have uploaded machine intelligences in the middle and the humans who control both at the most privileged end of the axis.
The complex relationship that lies at the heart of Ghost Spin is between one such sentient "machine," i.e., what is known in the series as an "Emergent AI," an intelligence so vast and powerful that it spawns other sentient AIs, known as Cohen; and Catherine Li, a construct who as an adolescent had her genes hacked, allowing her to pass for owning the minimal amount of her own DNA needed to effect her escape from the short brutish life she had been destined for.
Catherine and Cohen are in every sense of the word married. Though Cohen uses "shunts" of both sexes to manifest himself in flesh, he genders himself male. Catherine, whose sexual preference tends toward women, instantly recognizes his presence in whatever human he has paid to host him. But because Cohen contains multitudes, he possesses aspects and agendas outside Catherine's knowledge, which has from the beginning had the effect of generating her distrust. Catherine’s "soft" memory (i.e., memory that hasn't been written into the digital memory she carries around in her brain), which contains innumerable gaps caused partly by all the FTL travel she's done and partly through deliberate excision by military medics preserving her from the memories of the war crimes she committed under orders from the highest level of UNSec, adds to the complications in her relationship with Cohen, for he probably knows more of her personal history than she does. A third area of problems for the couple lies in their politics. Cohen's long-term agenda is AI Liberation. Catherine, despite her intimate knowledge of the degradation and brutality of UNSec's regime, persists in thinking that UNSec's rule is preferable to the bogeyman known as the Syndicates, although she is partially responsible for having destroyed UNSec's control by bringing its cheap, seemingly endless supply of Bose-Einstein crystals powering FTL travel to an end. Except for her visceral hatred of the Syndicates, politically Catherine is deeply ambivalent.
Bantam's publicity claims that Ghost Spin is a standalone novel; that may be so in a technical sense, but I don't recommend reading it without reading at least Spin State first. The novel begins with Cohen's suicide, which the AI effects in order to evade capture. The earlier novels' exploration of Catherine and Cohen's relationship is the baseline needed to understand what happens when that relationship is ended and perhaps—or not—metamorphosed into a hodgepodge of manipulation, longing, and wishful thinking. The question driving the narrative is fairly simple: is this the end and aftermath of a love story, or the resurrection of a love story after a near-death experience of the sort only an AI could have? In aid of making this a standalone novel, Moriarty has provided numerous infodumps telling us what Catherine meant to Cohen and vice versa. But the reader who already knows these characters from the previous novels will necessarily take these the way they take the summaries real-life persons make of the relationships important to them.
As an AI, and even as an Emergent AI, Cohen is unique. Not only does he boast the distinction of having been the first Emergent AI (way back in the twenty-first century), but he is also the only AI ever to have developed from an "Affect Class" loop that makes him capable of—even susceptible to—loving humans. Until his death, Cohen was in the habit of riding human bodies (whether soldiers, during military missions, or people he paid for the use of their bodies, known as "shunts") via Streamspace (a galactic network powered by Bose-Einstein crystals). Being wealthy, Cohen could afford to pay top dollar to young, beautiful bodies to serve as his shunts, which meant he always manifested in attractive human forms. Moreover, because of his human-loving personality, Cohen had over the centuries become a celebrity, especially fascinating to humans because he usually had his many, busy fingers in numerous pies. Like Catherine, Cohen's friends and acquaintances have no difficulty recognizing him in whatever body he uses—or understanding that only a portion of him is ever located in the body he is using. Cohen's self is, in fact, a "myriad of autonomous and semiautonomous agents from whose complex interplay his identity emerged" (p. 6). When he commits suicide he breaks up his system and broadcasts pieces of it into the local network. His hope, we are told, is that Catherine will choose to collect all the pieces and perhaps even reassemble them into a coherent whole.
Because Catherine Li is a wanted woman, and because the "Age of FTL travel" is coming to an end, Catherine’s only means of reaching the part of the galaxy known as the Drift and New Allegheny, where Cohen died, is by way of "scattercasting." Scattercasting is illegal in UN space. It is "refugee tech" employed only by the desperate. Basically, the unencrypted jump files for sending her body (including her internals) from one place to another are broadcast at large, with the slim hope "that someone somewhere would decide to resurrect your pattern," and that that someone might be a morally decent entity. As Router/Decomposer tells Catherine, "Technically speaking, you always die in this universe and are resurrected in some other quantum branching of the multiverse" (p. 35).
This explanation led me astray—led me, in fact, to read a different book from the one Moriarty had written, until on p. 494 (of the novel's 555 pages) the narrative revealed that I ought to have made an unwarranted assumption that this explanation discouraged me from making. On p. 119, Catherine Li, the narrative informs us, "died, and her datastream blossomed out across the galaxy like fluff blowing from a blown dandelion. A million billion bits of information streamed out across the universe, catching the gravitational tides, skipping and hopping through the quantum foam, traveling, traveling, always traveling, in an eternal journey that would end when either the data or the universe stopped moving. In places, the stream of data encountered eddies or barriers that temporarily diverted or stopped it."
The narrative shows us what happens to Catherine in various universes—which often means torture and/or death—but eventually focuses on three individuals' points of view; two of these are resurrections of Catherine, one given the name of Catherine Li, the other the name of Caitlyn Perkins (the name Catherine had as a child, pre-hack). The third point of view is Llewellyn, a pirate outlaw and former naval captain who uploaded (into his body) navigation software that he soon discovers is a powerful fragment of Cohen. "Catherine Li" falls into Llewellyn's hands, while "Caitlyn Perkins" takes up residence on New Allegheny and, pursuing fragments of Cohen, finds the purchasers of those fragments murdered. For much of the book, Caitlyn's narrative plays out a scenario of noir crime fiction (complete with honest local cop working the case), while Catherine's plays out a space opera scenario reminiscent of C. J. Cherryh's Alliance-Union books. Llewellyn's narrative, on the other hand, is largely taken with his struggle with the fragment of Cohen he's uploaded (and which is making him physically ill), a love-triangle with the resurrected Catherine Li and Cohen, and the tortuously slow, grudgingly piecemeal eking out of events the author chose to withhold from the reader at the time they transpired, via long, involved flashbacks that repeatedly bring the narrative flow to a stubborn halt.
This modus operandi, of continually stopping the narrative to go back in time, not to reveal a backstory that occurred before the novel's opening but instead to deliver key parts of the story withheld from the reader at the time it initially unfolded (earlier in the novel), makes for a frustrating read. Ghost Spin could have been a page-turner, had Moriarty allowed the story to unfold as it happened. But every time the pace of the novel picks up, yet another flashback sandbags the reader with relations of past events. Although narratives must tell as well as show, because of the prominence these flashbacks hold in the narrative, the balance here is skewed in favor of telling for no interesting purpose that I’ve been able to make out.
As I've mentioned, I believed, until arriving at p. 494, that I was reading a story of two resurrections of Catherine Li in two different multiverses. I found the idea charming and conceptually fascinating. What author does not mentally play with the different trajectories for their characters under different circumstances? Here it seemed Moriarty had decided to literalize the process via her SFnal idea of scattercasting. As a result of my assumption that each resurrected Catherine Li inhabited a different multiverse, I made a couple of pages of notes on the novel’s exploration of parallel narratives within the same novel. But as I discovered on p. 494, rather than creating parallel stories, Moriarty instead focuses on how differences can manifest between two iterations of the same person placed in different circumstances in the same multiverse. (C. J. Cherryh, of course, does this, chronologically, with Cyteen  and Regenesis .)
This is, in fact, a theme that runs through Moriarty's Spin series. The corporations operating under UNSec protection generate the humans they use as workers destined for an early death in virtually identical versions (though no one seems to consider them clones). Hence, in Spin State, Catherine can be mistaken for mathematician Hannah Sharifi, because she’d been made from the same model. UNSec's enemy, the Syndicates, are reviled for raising a population of clones in a series of models designed for certain sorts of tasks (and culled when they don’t develop along desirable specs); both the Syndicates' and the corporations' approach to population control resembles that of Huxley's Brave New World. But in both cases, the reproduction of a single genetic model results in an impressive degree of variability.
Llewellyn, who was made UNSec's scapegoat for a corporate officer's mishandling of a ship-AI, provides an interesting look at AI-human hybridity, which is shared to greater and lesser degrees by anyone who has "internals." When he uploads a navigational AI into his own body (rather than having it uploaded directly to his ship), the question of his agency doesn't merely play out in his struggle to control the fragment of Cohen that the wetware actually is; it also becomes an issue for his crew, who worry that the AI has taken him over. AIs are absolutely necessary to the functioning of starships, but the humans in Ghost Spin trust them only to a point—and to the extent that their agency is subordinate to human control. This goes for Catherine Li, too, despite her deep attachment to Cohen. She trusted the part of him she knew; but since Cohen was vast, she never ceased being aware that parts of him were unknown to her and alien.
The indissoluble knot at the heart of Ghost Spin, then, is the reason that Cohen could not allow himself to be taken and chose suicide. UNSec can tolerate agency neither in its planet-bound workers nor in the AIs it uses (and owns). In its constant struggle to suppress every least sign of agency in its workers (both human and AI), it is "fighting evolution," as the fragment of Cohen Llewellyn has uploaded tells the latter: "They fought evolution on Gilead, where they spent a decade making teenage soldiers commit appalling war crimes, and wiping their memories and throwing them back into the slaughterhouse again and again" (p. 199). Catherine Li, of course, was one of those teenage soldiers. "They fought it on Compson's World and ended up losing control of the only known source of Bose-Einstein condensates and trashing their entire FTL system. They fought evolution on Maris and Depford and Skandia and a dozen other Periphery planets—every place in UN space where the post-human colonials dared to stand up and demand some reasonable say over their lives and their planets and their raw resources. And they’re fighting evolution every day all over UN space every time the AI cops flip a kill switch or someone threatens to report an undocumented sentient to the Controlled Tech Committee" (p. 199). Although many of the characters point out this basic conflict, only Cohen includes AIs in his analysis, and only Cohen characterizes the struggle for agency as "evolution."
The primary story Ghost Spin tells is that of Catherine Li's search for fragments of Cohen and her attempt to reassemble them. But the underlying story threading that primary story takes us back to Joanna Russ's wry remark about machines demanding proper maintenance as humans don't, which I quoted above. The corporations in Ghost Spin attempt to have it both ways—wishing to strip humans and AIs of their agency (as if they were machines taking direction) while misusing them as only humans and other animals can be misused, as they so often are and have long been in the elite's pursuit of profit and power. Terrible pacing makes Ghost Spin a more frustrating than enjoyable read, but the novel's exploration of social and political issues is always interesting and often insightful.
L. Timmel Duchamp is the author of Love's Body, Dancing in Time, the five-volume Marq'ssan Cycle, and a lot of short fiction and essays. She has been a finalist for the Nebula and Sturgeon awards and short-listed several times for the Tiptree. She lives in Seattle.
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