Reviewer Steve Moore: Steve is a full-time writer and ex-scientist. Besides his many technical publications, he has written six sci-fi thrillers (one a novel for young adults), many short stories, and frequent comments on writing and the digital revolution in publishing. His interests also include physics, mathematics, genetics, robotics, forensics, and scientific ethics. Follow Here for his WEBSITE.
This debut novel is a sci-fi thriller. It employs intense and suspenseful action, tight plotting, interesting characters, and chaos theory to weave an Aladdin’s magical rug of a story that will leave you breathless once you hop on it. It is my kind of novel—profound, yet entertaining.
The style, where interludes of quiet beauty are sprinkled with startling violence, reminds me of old Dean Koontz before he detoured into rewriting the Frankenstein myth. In spite of the title, the mathematics of chaos theory is replaced by a more philosophical treatment. The butterfly scene with Tali, a precocious two-year-old who intuitively understands how probability and stochastic processes continuously reshape our world, reminds me of the butterflies in Cien Años de Soledad. In fact, Tali is the fountain of magical realism in this book, although she’s not the main character.
Chaos theory is easily accessible to someone who’s had advanced calculus and an introduction to ordinary differential equations, because that’s where it started, in the study of certain systems of non-linear equations. Its original simplicity is attractive considering that many quite simple and well-known Hamiltonian systems—our solar system, for example—are chaotic. In other words, slight changes in initial conditions can give rise to exponentially diverging solutions. Moreover, by adding more variables, the system can start to exhibit what appears to be stochastic or random behavior.
A pair of computer scientists, for example, hypothesized that the internet, a vast nexus of millions of computers, might become chaotic. It’s a small step to take to reach a fictional futuristic event where a computer network becomes sentient (Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress or the popular Terminator movies). But Banks focuses on human behavior and relationships and their cause and effect. He employs the character of a mathematical genius to offer explanations on how chaos theory applies in this case, but there are several versions, including Tali’s—hence the title.
I can summarize the plot by stating that the story is how seemingly random events conspire to make people the victim of a serial killer. Here it all starts in a software company. I was living in the Boston area when Michael McDermott went on his killing spree there. I took solace in the perception that such events represent random violence. It’s hard to imagine that they’re not, but it’s not clear whether the author is saying that either. In fact, the book creates more questions than it answers, a good quality to have in a sci-fi thriller.
Nits to pick: Abrupt changes of point-of-view without obvious section divisions (ebook formatting?) or chapter divisions to define them; God’s-eye-POV lines of the type “he wouldn’t have done X if he knew Y”; annoying word reversals; and a few editing errors that word-processing software can’t catch. These were not enough to ruin my fun in reading this book, though. If you like this genre, you’ll enjoy it.
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