Ten Gentle Opportunities, by Jeff Duntemann

Last Friday’s post was essentially a call to arms for readers who enjoy the counter-culture movement within science fiction and fantasy to take a few risks and try novels by newer authors.  It is young, this backlash against modern identitarian…stories?  (It’s hard to use the term ‘stories’ when so often they are little more than characters bouncing off each other and pining for surcease from the crushing ennui of a life unfilled thanks entirely to factors and ideologies completely outside the protagonist’s control and oh my God why am I reading this somebody lock up my shotgun before I stick it in my mouth.)  And that youth is both blessing and curse.

These new(ish) writers, backtracking to pre-1980 works and charting their own destinations, are taking readers to new shores.  That sense that anything goes, provides readers with an inherent sense of adventure and discovery that you just won’t find in fiction written to adhere to the publishing houses’ established and approved literary paths of today.  The downside of living through this rebirth in adventure and exploration is that most of the guys writing the good stuff have a very limited back catalog.  Many of these authors have grown out of the crop of readers tired of the prevailing zeitgeist spitting on their hands, rolling up their sleeves, and hoisting the black flag by writing their own damn stories, thank you very much. 

Jeff Duntemann is one such author.  Sort of.  He has been writing for decades.  His first published science fiction work was way back in 1974.  He has written reams of non-fiction books about computer programming and technical articles and other things, and a fair few sci-fi short stories as well.  If you check Amazon, you’ll find just six titles, two of which are short story collections.  That’s not a whole lot of books, and given his major focus on non-fiction, it’s understandable that you may not have heard of him.  At least one of Those titles fits right in with the nascent counter-counter-culture.

Enter Ten Gentle Opportunities.

I read this book cold.  I knew nothing about it save what could be gleaned from the cover.

Imagine my surprise when the book opens with a wizard-slash-conman, Stypek, fleeing a powerful sorcerer through the streets of a fantasy city.  Stypek had used magic of a mundane nature – a deck of marked playing cards – to cheat his pursuer out of a powerful artifact and winds up fleeing the much more powerful sorcerer by opening a portal to another dimension. 

Incidentally, that powerful artifact has ten charges that work as a kind of doomsday timer counting down to the final climax.  It’s a neat trick that ramps up the tension in the book in a novel way.

After Stypek is dragged through the portal to another dimension, the book shifts gears to a modern day story that weaves together the tale of a computer programmer and his ex-wife with the tale of a small group of proto-AI programs.  So abrupt was the shift that it left me wondering if this was actually a book of short stories.  Old Stypek doesn’t drop into the ‘real universe’ until several chapters have passed.

Once Stypek reappears, things get complicated.  I may have missed an important plot point somewhere in here – that or Duntemann plays his cards a little too close to his chest.  Something goes very wrong with the programming at the world’s first fully automated copy machine factory, and all three of our protagonist groups, wizard, programming couple, and AIs, fight to unravel the mystery of what went wrong, and then fight to stop the force behind what went wrong.

In a lot of ways, this book reminds me of Nick Cole’s wonderful Ctrl-Alt-Revolt.  An AI goes berserk and the only way to stop it is to break into its compound and fight through an army of robots while simultaneously beating the thing inside the digital universe.  Where Ctrl-Alt-Delete uses the narrative short cut of placing the software fight inside an MMORPG, Ten Gentle Opportunities effortlessly slides back and forth between a more Sims style narrative and evocative descriptions of pure program-on-program battles where code itself is both weapon, shield, and battleground. 

This book differs from Ctrl-Alt-Revolt in that the ultimate bad guy is something of a mystery.  It’s never entirely clear exactly what the stakes are in the fight, and the human characters aren’t quite likable enough to carry the load.  For my money, the AI characters are much more likable than their human counterparts, and it was the question of their fate that kept me turning pages.  That might be a function of my own limited intellect.  Clever readers may solve the mystery long before this reviewer did; in which case clever readers will draw even more enjoyment out of Ten Gentle Opportunities

This is a book that could only have been written by an experience programmer.  Duntemann seamlessly presents a long string of puzzles, mysteries, and complications within both meat space and virtual space within the book, and his explanations of the programming problems are excellent.  They never feel like an information dump or lecture, instead they are seamlessly woven into the story in ways that drive the narrative rather than stall it out while we learn the basics of programming and debugging.

Even more impressive is the way Mr. Duntemann ties together wizardry and programming in a way that allows Stypek to work as a natural born hacker despite having grown up in a world where progress followed the mystic path rather than the physics track.  The two work in parallel, even as they never really cross paths.  Two sentences cannot do this world-building exercise justice – suffice it to say that Duntemann has a firm grasp of how the rules in both universes work, how they tie together, and how to relay these things to the reader in an unobtrusive way.  It’s clever, original, and well done.

Ten Gentle Opportunities represents the best that science-fiction and fantasy have to offer.  It blends the two genres in a clever and original way.  It presents near future tech that is plausible, delightful, and a little scare.  Best of all, it provides a exuberant and unapologetic adventure that incorporates action, violence, romance, and robots in ways that are both exciting, fun to read, and even a little bit educational.