A tantalizing glimpse at a post-meaning reality
Cara Lynn Carter’s Coherence: A Hard Sci-Fi Thriller tells the story of human diplomats traveling from their home planet and meeting with other civilizations, a bit like the Star Trek trope of meeting new life and civilizations. They work at the behest of their society’s artificial intelligence, which is driven to understand the universe. This motivation is not so simple, or pure, as it seems (when are they ever?). The central conflict of the novel involves the motives of this central AI being exposed, and the reaction of another form of intelligence grappling with it, with the attendant misery and suffering of the meat-based beings caught in the middle.
Although it advertises hard science fiction on the cover, Carter’s Coherence leans more to the softer side. There is little explanation of the fantastical technology that is central to the book, beyond surface descriptions that rely mostly on colloquial understandings of advanced physics topics (read: quantum mechanics). I couldn’t imagine anything otherwise, given how far beyond our current level of technology the story takes place.
Coherence touches on many fascinating themes, including an examination of a post-scarcity society that is organized and operated by artificial intelligence. What does it mean when human purpose is taken away? What would happen to people in such a world? What do people do, how do they survive, in a post-meaning universe?
Or take the version of immortality Carter touches on, in which a person’s memories are stored and, should they end up dying for some reason, a new copy is produced with all the memories stored since the last backup.
Unfortunately, Coherence does not go much beyond asking these questions, choosing instead to switch tracks and become more like a martial arts adventure, where the main character gets in a fist fight with the population of a planet.
The characters in Coherence are distinct, with their individuals motives and foibles; however, there are a lot of brain/tech connections going on, among the diplomats and the Synchrons, who inhabit the planet they are visiting. Thus, the reader tends to wonder how much of these personalities are them, and now much the various implants and super-intelligences messing around with their brains.
Carter’s writing style is novel (ha ha!). It presents, at least in part, a second person singular point of view, where the narration refers to “you”. This could be directed at the reader, or at the internal monologue of the main character’s thoughts. However you decide to interpret this, the choice is unusual, but does end up working—no spoilers, you’ll have to read to the end to know why.
Coherence was not what I expected, but this is not a bad thing. I enjoyed the story, found myself caring about the characters, was intrigued by the unfolding mystery, and found the ending satisfying and cathartic, if somewhat sad.