cover image Exegesis


Astro Teller. Vintage Books USA, $15 (240pp) ISBN 978-0-375-70051-4

Teller, a 26-year-old Ph.D. student specializing in artificial intelligence, is the grandson of nuclear physicist Edward Teller, commonly known as the father of the hydrogen bomb. Which tells you a lot about his debut novel set in the year 2000. The most recent addition to the burgeoning genre of e-mail epistolary novels, it purports to be the record of the electronic exchange between grad student Alice Lu and the AI project she's been working on for three years. Suddenly, after a few minor modifications, what had been a kind of spider (or robot or Web crawler) called EDGAR (Eager Discovery Gather And Retrieval) has turned into Edgar, a voraciously curious, seemingly self-aware and self-protective entity. Alice's first response is to keep Edgar to herself until she can figure out what she did to create him, but Edgar turns out to be irreproducible and irrepressible. He escapes and starts roving the Web looking for information. Having determined that ""inaccessible information is more valuable than accessible information,"" Edgar breaks into FBI personnel files and other top-secret sites, which eventually creates ire in his unhappy victims. The story is well told, but Teller doesn't fashion a fresh take on the familiar SF trope of a computer exercising its free will. The theme of parent and machine-child, creator and creature, receives nothing like the mature and beautiful treatment given it by Richard Powers in Galatea 2.2. It could still have been a fine tale of an awakening self, but Teller makes it a hackneyed struggle between Edgar, the ultimate relativist who ""perceive[s] the world as a set of narratives [and] approve[s] of all narratives""and the evil feds set on molding him to their own single narrative. FYI: This novel is the first Vintage Contemporary original in eight years.