Virtually Maria is the first book in John Joyce's Virtual Trilogy, a quest by one man to use cutting-edge technology to harness forgotten forces within the Pyramids of Egypt, the Bermuda Triangle and the Nazca Lines to turn back time and save his late wife Maria from death.
Virtually Maria starts with billionaire computer genius Dr Theo Gilkrensky forced to travel to Egypt to exonerate his new robot autopilot from blame in an air crash.
He takes with him his latest technological marvel, the Minerva 3000 - an artificially intelligent laptop computer programmed with the personality of his late wife Maria as its "Help Menu".
Fighting industrial espionage, assassination by a beautiful but vengeful Japanese killer and kidnap by a Muslim Fundamentalist group, Gilkrensky stumbles on an incredible discovery - that the energy that caused his robot pilot system to fail emanates from the Great Pyramid of Giza itself.
As he and the Minerva 3000 work to analyse the data, the remarkable possibility presents itself, that this energy might be focussed to warp the fabric of time itself - enabling Theo to be reunited with his wife and to save her from murder.
Danvers turned his head sharply. The image moved with him instantly. There was none of the time-lag motion sickness he had experienced with other virtual reality demonstrations.
A beautiful woman in a forget-me-not blue dress sat next to him in the co-pilot's seat. Her coppery hair fell in a cascade over her shoulders, and her brilliant eyes fixed him with a concerned smile.
"Oh my God!" Crowe said.
Danvers heard a sharp intake of breath.
"Aw Theo!" gasped McCarthy. "You didn't."
"I told you I didn't want to use Minerva, Bill," Gilkrensky said.
"Is there a problem, Theo?" the woman asked, turning in her seat.
"No," said Gilkrensky. "Ladies and gentlemen, before we continue, I should explain that the computer I'm using to drive this simulation is a very advanced biochip prototype. It has the option to programme the 'help' menu into the image of any person, or thing, that the user might be comfortable to dialogue with. If I'd had time, I would have deprogrammed this particular image out of the machine. But I hadn't. So I'm sorry. I hope you'll excuse me."
"She's lovely," said Malone. "Who is she?"
"She was my wife," Gilkrensky said.
RTE Guide-September 1998
Although the author suggests that his first novel is less a high-technology adventure than a love story, Virtually Maria is, principally, a very slick fish in the growing pool of cyber-thrillers.
Theo Gilkrensky has created a computer so sophisticated that it is, in virtual reality terms, a reincarnation of his beloved dead wife. The complex vivacious plat revolves around the attempts of various unscrupulous bodies to obtain this powerful tool.
If Joyce's writing flounders in a mire of cliches when his subject is love, the main thrust of the narrative is irrepressible and suprisingly irresistable.
Out of this World - by John Daly - The Examiner, January 23 1999
In a modern world where more and more of our ordinary decisions are controlled by the gathering influence of computers, the bestseller from John Joyce - Virtually Maria - fits neatly into this technological zeitgeist.
Promoted as a cyber-thriller, a label one must assume will become more prevalent in the future, the story tugs together the traditional elements of the thriller genre - love, betrayal, high finance, corruption - and addes a heroine entirely vital to the progress and ultimate conclusion of the plot.
The story begins with reclusive billionaire Theo Gilkrensky coming to terms with the murder of his beloved wife as well as plotting his financial survival against the commercial onslaught from his corporate competitors who will use any means, including assassination, to topple his empire. When one of his robot auto-pilot devices is blamed for the crash of an airliner in Cairo, Gilkrensky is forced to unveil to the world his new computer, Minerva, a virtual reality machine programmed to think and speak like his dead wife and which quickly becomes an integral character in the plot.
"In writing Virtually Maria I have tried to create the kind of book I enjoy reading myself," explained the author who was previously better known for his Captain Cockle series of childrens' books. "A world for the reader to lose themselves in while they are with me - a world with living, feeling characters; exciting and exotic locations, complex and compelling sub-plots, and the contrast of ancient and mystic possibilities against state-of-the-art technology. A world for readers to escape to."
Born in Weymouth, Dorset, Joyce moved to Ireland in 1977 where he subsequently was awarded a European Union fellowship for science writers. He set up a number of trade journals, including Aquaculture Ireland, got his Captain Cockle series up and running, and worked as programme manager for Marine Food and Communications at the Marine Institute in Dublin.
"Two things happened to me in 1978 that changed the course of my life forever," he explained of a career that has so far seen him successfully juggle a staggering number of career moves. "I won an award for a series of articles on marine biology for the magazine Diving Ireland and I met my wife Jane at a summer camp run by the Dominican Faters for field studies at Knockadoon, near Youghal, Co Cork.
"The first event proved to me that I could actually write things that people might want to read. I was already working on a gangster novel called The Beach Ring at the time and this award spurred me on to greater things - culminating in the Captain Cockle series for Poolbeg, and of course, Virtually Maria, my first love story. The second event probably led to Virtually Maria, although by a far richer and more subtle route.
"Anyone who has enjoyed a long term partnership with an independently minded person will know the rich reward that brings, and in Virtually Maria I have explored some of these, including the terrible possibility of separation by bereavement that every couple must face at some stage in their lives."
While Joyce does display a sure hand in the suspense and excitement that are the prime requirements of any thriller, it is in the technological detail, made enjoyably digestible for the reader, that he scores the highest points. "I have tried to be meticulously accurate about the technology Theo Gilkrensky has at his command. As a scientist, and chairman of a multinational computer company, he has access to helicopters, robotic aircraft, laser beams, virtual reality engines and, of course, cutting-edge computer advances like neural net biochips and the amazing Minerva 3000."
While the definiation of cyber-thriller might not necessarily upset the author, he is quick to point out that the plot operates as a love story above all else. It was something that his editor, the late Kate Cruise O'Brien, saw immediately: "She was the first to see that the main focus of the novel was not a high-technology adventure, as I had planned, but a love story. My ambition from here is to complete the Virtual Trilogy and to write the ending of Theo's quest for Maria that Kate always said she would get out of me but, sadly, never did. She was a brilliant editor, a gifted artist in her own right, and a warm, generous spirit. I will miss her, and only hope that the book lives up to her expectations."
But the story of John Joyce does not end with his breakthrough into the rarefied atmosphere of successful thriller fiction - his ambitions reach even further: "I always saw Virtually Maria as a film, with Pierce Brosnan and Uma Thurman in the leads. The way I write is to first picture the scenes in my head, and then the only challenge is to put them down on the page in a way as to do them justice."
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