This is a SF geek's SF novel. See, I even used "SF" instead of "sci-fi" like I usually do to annoy the sci-fi geeks, because Factoring Humanity
is Very Very Serious SF. It's full of interesting thought experiments in a broadly-scoped scenario, the epitome of thinky-mindy SF, and it also lived up to expectations of such novels in that it was very dry and full of long passages of exposition, about quantum computers, about Jungian psychology, about materials engineering, about Artificial Intelligence, about the characters' backgrounds. So, imaginative and intelligent book, interesting story, characters who are placeholders to make the plot happen.
Set in the near future, the premise of Factoring Humanity
is that Earth has been receiving radio signals from Alpha Centauri for several years now. No one has managed to decipher them yet, but there is no question that they were produced by intelligent minds. I thought the book was very realistic in depicting an Earth that, once it got over the initial collective gasp of surprise that WE ARE NOT ALONE, proceeded to carry on like before. Yeah, people are curious about those aliens, but since nothing has actually happened
yet and no one knows what they're saying, they've faded into the background, becoming part of the noise of modern society. I think that's exactly how the world would react, by and large.
The main characters, Kyle and Heather Davis, are estranged scientists both working on different ends of the same problem. Kyle is a computer scientist who has built an Artificial Intelligence (but not a truly self-aware one), and who is working on quantum computers. Heather is a Jungian psychologist (those still exist?) trying to decode the Centauri messages.
The book starts out more like a soap opera than a SF novel. In the opening scene, the Davis' grown daughter shows up at their home and accuses Kyle of molesting her as a child. Unfortunately, this revelation is dropped on the reader before we've even gotten to know, much less care about any of these characters, delivered like the opening act of a play with lines recited by journeyman actors. So rather than being shocked, outraged, or wanting to know whether the accusation was true, I was just baffled, wondering where the author was going with this.
Heather, who is racked with uncertainty over the accusations, meanwhile makes a breakthrough in deciphering the aliens' radio messages. It turns out they contain instructions to build something. Meanwhile, Kyle has conversations with Cheetah, his "APE" AI, and makes a breakthrough in quantum computing that could spell the death of cryptography and thus most of the world's financial industry.
Somehow, all these threads do tie together — the molestation subplot, Heather's discovery, AIs, and the true nature of the aliens. It all gets resolved in an interesting and surprisingly optimistic way, considering that the book ends with one of those SF "game-changers" in which the universe will never be the same.
It's the sort of book obviously meant to make you think, and it does, but I just never felt like any of the characters were real, and so the interpersonal drama (and the AIs & aliens plot mixed with Jungian psychology makes the interpersonal a crucial point of the book) fell flat. Factoring Humanity
is recommended for people who like science fiction as a literature of ideas
but aren't looking for a rippin' adventure.