John Sundman's long-awaited second novel, Cheap Complex Devices is finally finished. It is astonishing, on just about every level a book can be astonishing. In one sense, it is a full 180 degree reversal from his first book Acts of the Apostles which was, on the face of it, a fairly straightforward techno-thriller in the Michael Crichton mold. In another sense, however, CCD is the exact same story as Acts. You may already be able to tell that it is a hard book to review -- I'll make an attempt first to simply describe the book itself.
Cheap Complex Devices is composed of four (or possibly five) parts, at least one of which is actually missing. The Foreword tells the story of the book's genesis according to nominal editor John Compton Sundman, of Stanhope Island, Maine. He recounts how he became involved in a prototypical game of nerd one-upmanship at a meeting of the Special Interest Group for Computer-Human Interaction (SIGCHI). Two research groups, both working on "Human-Language Storytellers" (or "Hals", which are software programs that write stories) meet over dinner one night, and eventually get into an argument about whose Hal is better.
The rivalry between the two competing research groups leads them to propose a contest, the first ever Hofstadter Prize for Machine-Written Narrative, to determine whose storytelling program is the best. Mr Sundman, as a neutral party and a technical writer by trade, is asked to edit the final collection of works, and arrange for a small private publication of the winners.
It eventually transpires that there are only two finalists, so it is decided that both will be published. Mr. Sundman collects and edits the two stories, but thinks that they deserve more than a small private printing for distribution to the contestants. He has in his possession, after all, the first known evidence that a computer can tell a story; something which it was previously thought only a human could do properly.
And here the trouble starts. He loses one manuscript, that of "The Bonehead Computer Museum," which later turns up as a book published by someone else, who he claims has stolen his identity, and which is pretty clearly John F.X. Sundman's first book Acts of the Apostles. John Compton Sundman (editor of CCD and our present narrator) bemoans the minor but uniformly harmful changes made to "Bonehead" to turn it into Acts, and also the blatant and shameless theft of his identity by the supposed author, who he claims is actually a retired police officer.
What remains of the collection, then, is the "Notes on the Source Code" written by members of the Hofstadter Prize committee, and the second of the two winners, a shorter novella called "Bees, or The Floating Point Error". John C. Sundman has decided to publish these alone, and let "Bonehead" (or Acts) fall by the wayside, as it is by now hopelessly tangled up in a legal mire.
The "Notes on the source code", written collectively by the remaining members of the Hofstadter Prize Committee, go on to cast further doubt on the provenance and meaning of both "Bonehead" and "Bees." They highlight several very strange parallels between the two works, including the fact that each novel seems to be aware of the other's existence, and each goes well out of its way to cast doubt upon the reliability or veracity of the other (despite both being supposedly fictional in the first place). Several other strange occurrences are described, which may or may not be coincidence. And finally the Bremser Spam is presented, which could perhaps be counted as a section of CCD of its own, or at least another version of the story that both Acts and "Bees" seem to be attempting to tell.
You can read both the Foreword and the Notes on the Source Code online for yourself, so I won't belabor the point. But by the time "Bees" begins, the book has already gone to some lengths to cast the reader adrift and chop off all of your normal assumptions at the knees. Books are written by humans, right? Well, maybe this is all the product of John F.X. Sundman's imagination, and he's just messing with us. Or maybe it isn't. Books have a beginning, a middle, and an end, right? Well this one has at least three beginnings, middles scattered liberally throughout, and all of the ends are provisional at best. I was also left with a distinct feeling that some of the ends were actually beginnings in disguise (and vice versa). Not to mention that it explicitly informs us that a good half or so of the book is not included, and can only be read in a form which may or may not be corrupted beyond recognition.
But what on Earth is the point of all this tomfoolery? After all, we've had this kind of postmodern trickery for decades now. Books that deny their own existence, books that refer to other books, attempts by an author to cast doubt on his own existence, or his authorship of the book you're reading, and so forth. None of this is new. The reason all of it works here is because it all serves a purpose. Acts was a straightforward thriller, albeit one that turned the normal hero/villain conventions of the genre upside down, by making technology itself the villain. CCD has largely the same point to make, but makes it from the opposite direction. The levels of confusion build up and multiply until you yourself don't know what to believe. The effect is strengthened by the inclusion of several stories that have such clarity of detail and force of reality that you suspect they are the literal truth -- that they actually happened -- even though they are told in the service of a tale that cannot (you try to convince yourself) be true.
Rather than tell you the story of technology run amok, as Acts does, CCD runs amok itself, and takes you along for the ride. It is, taken altogether, a piece of writing that in lesser hands would almost certainly have crashed and burned in the most abject depths of pointless self-indulgence. But Sundman somehow walks the razor's edge perfectly and pulls it off. By the end, I wanted to clap at the sheer breathtaking feat of narrative I had just experienced.
As all reviews must, this one barely skims the surface of Cheap Complex Devices. The book itself is a very complex device, and would take a lot more words than this to really unwrap and analyze. I suspect that the end result of such an effort would be similar the results of Ray Kurzweil's "onion peeling" metaphor for the search for the location of human consciousness. Each layer you peel off, you still have a whole onion, albeit a slightly smaller one. And at the end, you have a lot of onion peels, and no onion at all.
Or, to put it another way, if you read one book in the waning days of biological humanity's monopoly on Earthbound intelligence, better make it this one.
Cheap Complex Devices can be pre-ordered from John Sundman's website for $11.00. Ordering will get you a signed copy as soon as the book is printed (before October 1st 2002), and an immediate download in PDF or eBook form.