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Dreaming Metal
by Melissa Scott
Tor Books, 318 pages

Dreaming Metal
Melissa Scott Related Links
Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, Melissa Scott studied history at Harvard College and Brandeis University, where she earned her Ph.D. in the comparative history program. In 1986, she won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, the 1996 Lambda Literary Award for Gay/Lesbian Science Fiction for Shadow Man and the same award in 1995 for Trouble And Her Friends. She is one of the founders of WaveLengths, a review journal of gay/lesbian/bisexual/of interest science fiction and fantasy.

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A review by Alex Anderson

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Melissa Scott has been praised as one of the most provocative and entertaining science fiction writers publishing today. She has won numerous awards, including two Lambda Literary Awards for Best Science Fiction Novel (Trouble and Her Friends and Shadow Man) and the John W. Campbell Award for best new writer.

To be sure Scott is a talented writer, but after reading Dreaming Metal, one might wonder what all the fuss is about. It's not exactly her best work.

Not unlike Trouble and Her Friends, though not to the same annoying extent, Dreaming Metal presents us with an almost bohemian atmosphere not far removed from what you might find on a college campus. The smell of macaroni and cheese almost oozes from the pages.

Now there is definitely an audience for this, and if you happen to be a college or university student, then you will have an easy time identifying with the setting.

For the rest of us the book presents a decent story about the social conflicts arising from the emergence of true artificial intelligence. Not an amazing-life-changing-apocalypse-averting story, but a decent one.

Scott is a military historian with degrees from Harvard and Brandeis who is heavily into the exploration of how technological advancement effects society. In school, she focussed much of her studies on the advent and impact of gunpowder and her best known work, Trouble And her Friends, was largely an examination of how two distinct social groups equipped with slightly differing technologies interact. Of course it was also a good cyberpunk novel, but you're here for the high-brow crap, right?

Scott has also earned a reputation for examining gender issues without coming across like some tacky lesbians.com pornopage and Shadow Man, nominated for the 1996 Lambda, examines the issues involved in a world where people must pick their own gender.

But what's all that got to do with Dreaming Metal, you may ask? Well, not a whole lot really since Dreaming Metal is quite unlike both novels in any meaningful way, but I did get the chance to be high-brow.

Dreaming Metal picks up the story started in Dreamships five years after that book ended. Dreamships is an exploration of how society might react to the emergence of artificial intelligence. Specifically, it portrays a distinctly negative reaction to the concept of thinking machines and the fact that they should be treated as independent life forms with what we call "human" rights" such as the right to self-determination. It really isn't anything you haven't seen on Star Trek: the Next Generation, but rather than dealing with individuals like Data it looks at the collective.

The characters in Dreaming Metal are, for the most part, performers at an entertainment house who are, again for the most part, neutral in the highly political and bloody AI rights versus human rights scrap. They get sucked into the maelstrom because the masses -- the aforementioned collective -- see their art as political and therefore targetable. In the end, even the entertainment house, the Empires, becomes the target of terrorists out to make their point in that eloquent way terrorists are wont to.

The protagonist, Celinde Fortune, is an illusionist who uses highly powerful computer equipment, Spelvin constructs, in her work. When she combines a couple of chips in a new and interesting way, she gets a little more than she bargained for. Unfortunately, that's about all there is to the story. Well maybe that's not quite fair, but the AI never really materializes as a character. In fact, the anti-machine-rights terrorists never really discover its existence.

It's like an opportunity missed to do something cool. Scott never succeeds in turning the machine intelligence into more than an ethereal plot device which events surround like a tide -- never the cause of events and never the target.

The story is powerfully detailed and well-realized but, disappointingly, it never really comes through on the promise of past work. Scott gets bogged down in grand social upheavals and forgets that she's supposed to be telling us about a group of individuals.

Dreaming Metal is worth reading, but Neuromancer it ain't.

Copyright © 1997 by Alex Anderson

Alex Anderson is a long-time SF reader just pompous enough to believe other people may want to read the meanderings he scribbles down between fits of extreme lethargy he calls contemplation.


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