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The Digital Dead
Bruce Balfour
Ace paperback $6.99

review by Cristopher Hennessey-DeRose

In this sequel to his wonderful The Forge Of Mars, Bruce Balfour brings back the characters of Tau Wolfsinger and his girlfriend Kate McCloud into another aspect of his world, seeing Kate kidnapped and Tau himself very nearly killed.
   Although Kate manages to escape her captors, Tau suspects that this turn of events is tied to their discovery of Martian ruins and alien technology. During the investigation of what appears to be some kind of Martian artifact, Tau's father is killed. The clues point further down the technological road than Tau first suspected, to the Elysian Fields, where virtual copies of those who have passed away are kept.
   Dense, complex, yet easy to read and enjoy, the trappings of SF, cyberpunk and the technothriller are all present here, wrapped up neatly by Balfour's prose, which while still evolving into his own unique voice amongst the crowd he's running with, grabs the reader early on, a rarity in the field in which the author is swinging for - a tense cyber-thriller with more characters than you can count, all of whom are not only welcome additions to the story and Balfour's growing universe, but well conceived and fleshed out.
   Oftentimes, books like The Digital Dead suffer greatly from plot overwhelming its considerable array of characters, who crumble away under the reader's scrutiny as under-developed and almost ignored ciphers who only react to their situation rather than show any sort of realness of self, an interaction with their surroundings. Balfour sidesteps this early on by realising that the plot can be a character unto itself and the characters working inside its framework directly affect not only the outcome of it, but of the inception of it and its actualisation.
   There is a sly sense of humour to Balfour's body of work, not just as represented in The Digital Dead, although it is prevalent in his latest work, but that only serves to indicate a definition of his own voice away from the apparent roots of the likes of Gibson or Clancy.
   A pervading sense of reality also gifts the plot and characters and their motivations. We may not agree with everything they do, feel, or say, but they are so clear cut in their personalities and actions that we don't mind - it's like Balfour understands the point of view of the reader as well as his own characters - something not easily found in genre fiction in general, let alone how relatively early it is in Balfour's career.
   While I think Balfour's best work is still ahead of him, he doesn't seem to mind in the least, pacing himself with what thus far has been a strong body of work. Better still, he is an author who has not already seen his best, allowing him to be a promising voice in an ambitious field that has been known to eat its own on more than one occasion, trapping a writer (and reader) into a single world, never to go outside of it for fear of a dip in sales, or god forbid, even an expansion in readership.
   The Digital Dead isn't a classic in the strictest sense of the word, at least not yet. That said, it is nevertheless a damn fine read, and one I highly recommend.

Related item:
tZ  Artificial Intelligence And Tilting At Windmills: Bruce Balfour interviewed

Digital Dead

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