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New York Dreams
Eric Brown
Gollancz, 325 pages

New York Dreams
Eric Brown
Eric Brown lives in Haworth in West Yorkshire. His novels include The Virex Trilogy (Penumbra, Meridian Days, Engineman, Untouchable and Walkabout -- the latter two for young adults), and the collections The Time-Lapsed Man and Blue Shifting. He is a regular and popular contributor to Interzone magazine.

Eric Brown's Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Bengal Station
SF Site Review: New York Nights
SF Site Review: New York Blues
SF Site Review: Parellax View
SF Site Review: Bengal Station

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Victoria Strauss

The third installment in Eric Brown's Virex Trilogy finds P.I. Hal Halliday deep in VR addiction, living out a fantasy existence in the pristine landscape of a virtual Virginia coastline, his only companion a programmed recreation of Casey, the waiflike teenager who briefly shared his real life but has since moved on. Hal isn't alone in his VR dependence: in the bleak world of the twenty-first-century USA, with its poisoned environment and teeming, refugee-choked cities, the complete, if temporary, escape offered by VR is powerfully alluring.

Even addicts must emerge into the real world occasionally, though, and during one of these hiatuses Hal is contacted by an old client: Wellman, CEO of Cyber-tech, one of the major VR companies. Cyber-tech is putting the finishing touches on a revolutionary new time-extension technology that will allow VR users to experience days of subjective time while only hours go by in the real world. But Wellman's star researcher, teenage autistic savant Suzie Charlesworth, has suddenly gone missing, and Wellman fears she has been kidnapped by a competitor.

Less because he wants to work than as a favor to an old associate, Hal agrees to take the case. But his VR addiction makes it tough to fall back into his old PI habits, and the sudden return of Casey -- the real Casey -- brings up issues of responsibility and commitment he isn't prepared to deal with. Worse, what initially seemed like a straightforward investigation is fast turning much more complicated. Suzie was working on her own secret research, an investigation into the material existence of the human soul, possibly at the behest of a mysterious group known as the Methuselah Project -- with which Hal's ex-girlfriend, Kim Long, may also have been involved. Like Suzie, Kim has just vanished, and as the brutal attempts on his life make clear, someone really doesn't want Hal to find out why. Meanwhile, Kat Kosinski, an operative with the underground anti-VR group Virex, continues the fight despite mounting evidence that the leaders of the organization have been co-opted. And Hal's ex-partner Barney Kluger, whom Hal believes was killed on a previous case, may still be alive -- or at least his consciousness may be, trapped in a VR simulation. But if Barney's body is gone, what exactly is it that remains?

As an SF/mystery hybrid, New York Dreams is fast-paced and entertaining, but not especially distinctive. The trashed-future scenario and the various VR technologies feel overly familiar; and though the mystery is well-crafted, its twists and turns are not terribly surprising. The reader will probably put the clues together well before Hal does.

More interesting is the book's thoughtful approach to its characters, and its exploration of the problems arising from VR's growing dominance. Hal and Casey, Barney and Kat are fully-dimensional human beings, struggling not just with scary technology and deadly assassins but with their own private fears and failings; the mysteries they chase are as much within themselves as outside. Brown takes a sharp look at the social and interpersonal costs of VR escapism, which is fast turning the United States into a nation of people interacting only with themselves. The consequences of this are manifest in Hal's confusion between the virtual Casey, whom he has recreated according to his own private idealized longing, and the real one, who won't fit neatly into such predetermined boxes and in addition requires him to interact with her. There's also the question of what consciousness becomes when it enters a digitized reality. Suzie Charlesworth is using VR to mount a scientific search for the soul -- but for Barney Kluger, his physicality gone, his personality isolated in a VR prison, the question is entirely subjective, as he slowly comes to understand what has happened to him and tries to determine how much of him has survived -- and whether that remnant is still human.

Like its predecessors, New York Dreams is fully self-contained, and can be read as a stand-alone (though it certainly benefits from a reading of the two previous volumes). It's an enjoyable conclusion to a series whose strength lies not in its execution of genre conventions but in its attention to character and theme.

Copyright © 2004 Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel, The Burning Land, is available from HarperCollins Eos. For more information, visit her website.

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