Infectress is a deadly eco-terrorist, determined to engineer New Age Dawn, a virus that will kill most people on earth, restoring the world to an idyllic past state. Diane Jamison is an ex-FBI agent with a good reason to stop her. And Scott McMichaels has just invented Meta, an AI that may be powerful enough to design New Age Dawn. When Infectress gets control of Meta, the race is on to stop the ultimate disaster.
The pace rarely lets up: Diane puts together tenuous clues to Infectress' identity and ultimate goal, and discovers to what lengths she is truly willing to go in her hunt; Scott invents Meta, then discovers the hard way that full-immersion virtual reality (VR) is the most sophisticated torture invented; Infectress comes close to her aim, but still has to convince her impatient sponsor not to kill her. We are shown a grimy, overcrowded Earth, with the aim of making Infectress' goal seem not totally unreasonable. But her means truly are dreadful.
The plot is good fun. But what makes this good hard SF is the all the great technology. It is 2025: we have a newly created super AI, fully decoding the human genome and designing super viruses; we have nanotech 'roaches' invading computer systems and human brains; we have smart spider-sized multi-robots; we have total immersion VR almost indistinguishable from reality. Cool manages the non-intrusive info-dump as well as Heinlein ever did: how can some authors manage to make a page of high tech hardware specs exciting to read, and flow with the plot, while others make it dull, or jarring? The detailed descriptions of the VR system, with the intelligent all-body 'data-gloves' and exoskeletons is particularly fascinating. When VR becomes so good you can't distinguish it from reality, when you might never know whether your experiences are illusions or reality, things will certainly be very different.
Infectress reminds me in some ways of Greg Bear's Queen of Angels (though not as good, but then again, not as difficult to read), with some of the well-drawn future style of Peter Hamilton's Mindstar Rising
A group of youngsters have been raised from birth in total immersion virtual reality -- trained only to fight battles, ignorant of the real world. But some of them have had suspicions for a while, and when the real war that they have been trained to fight breaks out, they notice a difference from the earlier virtual wars, and use their skills to fight their jailers.
I found the scenes in VR the most interesting, as the warriors manipulate their virtual landscapes fighting old battles in new ways. The way they treat the real world as just one more realm, with different rules but with experiences no more or less meaningful than their VR ones, is interesting. I did find some of the abilities of the warriors in real life a little unbelievable, however -- true, they are used to flipping between different VR realms, but this is the first time they have ever interacted with new different people, yet they seem to have little difficulty adapting.
The plot is a little choppy occasionally, flipping between several viewpoints, and the character of Mike is a little underdeveloped -- sometimes he seems to be there just to illustrate scenes of life on an American aircraft carrier. But Trickster and Cat are well-drawn, and bringing out the contrasts and similarities of the warriors' totally artificial lives with the "normal" use of VR on the aircraft carrier is a nice touch.