Book Review of Dreamships

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Book Information

Title: Dreamships
Author: Melissa Scott
Copyright Date: 1992
Rating (out of 4 stars):*
Reviewed on:Dec. 22, 2005


This book takes place some hundreds of years in the future, when humans have colonized many planets in the galaxy. The main characters are from a planet named Persephone, which has a very hot, barely inhabitable surface, so the population lives in an extensive series of underground levels.

Personal technology is much more advanced and integrated into everyday life. Many people have some types of implants to be able to access computers or virtual reality directly with their thoughts.

In this universe, faster-than-light travel is possible by entering Drive, which essentially takes the spaceship into hyperspace. A human pilot uses virtual reality to guide the ship in hyperspace, with the assistance of a specialized computer program called an overseer.

The book focuses on Reverdy Jian, a pilot, and her crew. They are hired to take an extremely rich person, Meredalia Mitexi (a programmer of computer overseers), to a back-water planet to rescue her brother, Venya Mitexi, who is a genius programmer. The ship Meredalia Mitexi provides is extremely opulent and has cutting-edge technology, including a computer overseer named Manfred. When Jian and her crew work with Manfred, they discover that it is far more sophisticated than any other computer overseer they have encountered. They reach the planet and rescue Venya Mitexi with a few minor mishaps.

The computer overseer, Manfred, becomes the crux of the rest of the book. Venya Mitexi designed Manfred. A growing movement on Persephone is fighting for the rights of artificial intelligence, should it be proven that a computer program is actually sentient. Venya Mitexi believes that Manfred is intelligent, but Meredalia does not. Over time, Jian begins to believe that Manfred is in fact sentient. Meredalia now has legal control over the ship and Manfred, and plans to sell Manfred to a large corporation, which will probably irreparably alter him in the process of making him usable on a wide range of spaceships.

On the trip home, Venya Mitexi sabotages the ship so that it is stuck in Drive, and then eventually kills himself. His presumptive motive is to prevent Manfred from being destroyed. Jian and her crew manage to find a way to return the ship safely to Persephone. In the meantime, Jian makes a personal copy of Manfred's program.

Upon their return to Persephone, they receive wide publicity, since Venya Mitexi was well-known and the issue of artificial intelligence rights is a hot topic. The issue of Manfred's intelligence is hotly debated. Riots break out between the supporters of artificial intelligence rights and union employees, who want to fight for human rights first.

Jian cannot decide what to do with her copy of Manfred. The original Manfred manages to manipulate the local internet and gets itself downloaded and given to Jian. Through a subsequent series of mishaps and manipulations by Manfred itself, Manfred gets into the hands of the pro-artificial intelligence people. Jian takes her copy of Manfred to another genius computer programmer, Lyardin. Lyardin discovers the Jian's copy is imperfect because of some stop-gap measures taken during copying, but enough of the program exists for Lyardin to analyze it and determine if Manfred is really intelligent. She pronounces Manfred to NOT be intelligent; Venya Mitexi programmed him to act intelligent in order to support the pro-artificial intelligence movement.

Meanwhile, Manfred has been surrounded by the authorities, so to speak, and in a last ditch effort to escape deletion, tries to download himself into Jian's implants. The download fails, but Jian is seriously injured. She will survive, but will need extensive artificial augmentation, such as artificial eyes.


I found this book to be a disappointment. My first problem with it was the pacing. The book starts off extremely slowly. My paperback copy is 338 pages; when I was about a third of the way through it, I felt like nothing much had happened yet. A lot of detail and exposition is given to the world of Persephone, and little of it is really relevant to the story.

Once the characters started their trip on the spaceship, the pace picked up a bit, but there was still far too much description. The ship was very opulent, intended for the extremely rich, and had lots of gadgets, and too much time was spent "playing" with these.

I don't know how believable I find it that humans control the flight of the ship in Drive via virtual reality: visualizing a consistent image for hours seems extremely difficult. However, this aspect was not the major point of the book (unlike Dragons in the Stars by Jeffrey A. Carver - my review), plus the humans have computer assistance, so this idea did not bother me too much.

The meat of the book was the idea that a sentient artificial intelligence (AI) should have rights. I also thought it was very realistic that any movement supporting those rights would be opposed by those humans who feel that they still haven't gotten those rights - so why guarantee them for an artificial life form? However, I had trouble understanding why the pro-AI people were so passionate - no program had yet been proven to be sentient, so why would so many people care so much about the potential for sentient AI? I just couldn't buy that these supporters would actually get violent over this cause. That is, until a possibly sentient AI surfaced: Manfred. Then they had a focus for their movement. Even so, the pro-AI vs. anti-AI conflict never really came very close to home for the main characters. One of Jian's crew did not believe sentient AI was possible, but their disagreements over it were relatively mild.

In the end the pro-AI people are let down, since Manfred is apparently a "fake". We are told this by the programmer Lyardin, and the characters just accept it. One might think they would get a second opinion...

Finally, all this conflict has been set up, and our lead character is seriously injured by the "fake", Manfred. Once Jian wakes up, does she have any sort of new feelings on the AI subject? And change in point of view? No, nothing. The book ends with a whimper. Possibly we are supposed to interpret the "repairs" to Jian (artificial eyes, for example) as showing that humans are becoming essentially sentient AIs; however, I think that is stretching the three pages that exist after Jian is injured. In the end, I feel that the book fails to make any kind of a point, and if the adventure itself was the only point, then it ends poorly.

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