It's not very often that I get to read something as utterly complex as this story. I don't mean complex in that "I don't understand or fully comprehend" in the same fashion as was the case with The Elysium Commission (which was a good book nonetheless). Rather I mean the sheer massiveness of the concepts involved within the novel itself.
The basic story is this:
Herb is a young entrepeneur in a futuristic 'world' (figuratively speaking since in this case there are many worlds within Earth's scope) governed by an entity called the Environmental Agency. He is returning to a planet where he had illegally set into action little machines called VNM's--self replicating robots that can be programmed to create entire cities--only to find that his VNM's have gone haywire and overrun the planet, destroying everything of value. Just when he thinks he might get away with it, being so far from the center of control for the Environmental Agency, an EA agent pops up in his ship. Soon he finds himself in a different sort of trouble as he learns that his accident is nothing compared to what the something called the "Enemy Domain" is up to.
There are two other story lines that run through this. One involves Constantine--set in the past before Herb--who is called a "ghost" because he has imbedded into his mind four other personalities (not the psychological condition, but actual other personalities that live in him as he goes along with his life...they interact and the like). The other is Eva who we find out in the beginning has been planning to kill herself for some time but because the Environmental Agency is truly the nosiest of governments it won't allow her to do it without careful planning. This is set in the past as well. Later on we find her in a mental health facility with a group of people paranoid about something called "the Watcher".
Now the two other story lines run in with the main story with Herb. Both merge in the end with Herb. I don't think it was a perfect merging, it was somewhat flawed and not quite as strong as I would have liked, but it worked well enough to keep me interested in the story from start to finish. One of the things I loved most about this book were the concepts in it. You have VNM's that can build AND destroy, people who have extra personalities that are practically their own people inside of their minds, copied mental entities within sustained 'Matrix' style worlds that are just as alive as the minds they came from, and AI's that have grown and evolved so much that they are actually smarter than humans--for obvious reasons.
All this makes for a very intriguing story. The action was fantastic and I found that I truly enjoyed all the characters, even the crazy ones. I generally don't like stories with so many story lines, partially because I like to delve deep into individuals rather than groups. Luckily I think Ballantyne managed to create very 3-d characters for me. They had fears that were real in the world they lived in. They cried when they were supposed to; freaked out when things went bad. They were, essentially, very human! He does an excellent job taking characters that aren't human and twisting them just so slightly so you might start to wonder, "something just isn't right about you." The twists and turns keep the plot fresh and new. I liked this book very much. It will be in my collection for some time and I expect to read some more Ballantyne.