Books of the month: Sci­ence fic­tion and fan­tasy

Vir­tual friends in near-fu­ture Bri­tain, global break­down, and the price of crime

The Guardian - Review - - News - Eric Brown Eric Brown’s lat­est novel is Mur­der Takes a Turn (Sev­ern House).

Heather Child’s de­but novel, Ev­ery­thing About You (Or­bit, £14.99), reads as though the au­thor has trav­elled to the fu­ture and re­turned with an itemised re­port. We are in near-fu­ture Bri­tain, and Child has ex­trap­o­lated from cur­rent trends in so­cial me­dia to cat­a­logue the pit­falls and ben­e­fits of a world in which most cit­i­zens take part in var­i­ous forms of vir­tual re­al­ity and smart­ware cu­rates ev­ery­one’s iden­tity. The novel be­gins eight years af­ter Freya’s 17-year-old step­sis­ter, Ruby, van­ished with­out trace, and Freya has been liv­ing with a bur­den of guilt and grief. When she borrows her ex-boyfriend’s Smart­face hard­ware, its al­go­rithms trawl the data­s­phere and pro­vide Freya with a de­fault vir­tual help­mate – a con­struct based on her sis­ter’s old on­line pres­ence. The novel is low on plot but high on acute psy­cho­log­i­cal ob­ser­va­tion as Child skil­fully por­trays Freya’s grow­ing iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with her miss­ing sis­ter’s vir­tual al­ter ego, while she in­ves­ti­gates what hap­pened to her. Ev­ery­thing About You is a cap­ti­vat­ing and as­sured first novel.

Hunted by GX Todd (Head­line, £16.99) is the sec­ond vol­ume in the post-apoc­a­lyp­tic Voices se­ries, which opened last year with the highly ac­claimed

De­fender, de­pict­ing the col­lapse of so­ci­ety and the flight of Lacey and Pil­grim across a blighted Amer­ica in search of Lacey’s sis­ter. The cause of global break­down was a mys­tery, but it left sur­vivors with voices in their heads, driv­ing many to the point of mad­ness.

Hunted fol­lows straight on from the first novel, in­tro­duc­ing two groups of new char­ac­ters hell­bent on find­ing Lacey for their own rea­sons. It’s a thrilling jour­ney through a bleak land­scape haunted by echoes of the past and riven by the vi­o­lence of des­per­ate peo­ple. Todd skil­fully cap­tures hope and hu­man­ity in the lives of char­ac­ters whom the reader comes to care about: Hunted is an im­pres­sive achieve­ment.

In A Man of Shad­ows, the first vol­ume of Jeff Noon’s John Nyquist mys­ter­ies, Nyquist was in­ves­ti­gat­ing a case in the cities of Day­zone and Noc­turna, where the cor­rupt traded in time rather than money. In the mind­bend­ing fol­low-up, The Body Li­brary (An­gry Ro­bot, £8.99), Nyquist is tread­ing the mean streets of Sto­ryville. He has been hired to re­port on the move­ments of Pa­trick Well­born dur­ing the in­ter­na­tional fes­ti­val of words – only to find him­self on the run af­ter killing Well­born. So far so noir, but this is Noon, mash-meis­ter and metafic­tional supremo, and in Sto­ryville he has cre­ated a fan­tas­ti­cal, night­mar­ish world in which cit­i­zens are po­liced by “nar­ra­tive of­fi­cers”, all the streets and dis­tricts are named af­ter fa­mous writ­ers, and in­di­vid­u­als cast off al­ter egos who go on to in­habit lives, and nar­ra­tives, of their own. It’s a heady psy­che­delic mix, packed with lit­er­ary al­lu­sions, which bril­liantly ex­plores no­tions of self-iden­tity, per­sonal aware­ness and how we fit into our own sto­ries.

Claire North goes from strength to strength. In her fifth novel, 84K (Or­bit, £18.99), the world is ruled by the Com­pany, a mer­ci­less bu­reau­cracy that places a price on ev­ery cit­i­zen’s life and on ev­ery crime com­mit­ted. Those with wealth can set­tle up for their crimes, while the poor must pay for their mis­de­meanours by be­com­ing lit­tle more than slaves. Theo Miller works as a crim­i­nal au­dit of­fi­cer, tab­u­lat­ing the costs. He knows the sys­tem is cor­rupt, but toes the com­pany line – for good rea­son. Miller is not who he seems to be and has a dark se­cret which is in dan­ger of be­ing re­vealed when an old flame re-en­ters his life. Her daugh­ter was taken into the state or­phan­age at birth and she wants Miller’s help to find her. What fol­lows is a tense, mov­ing story set in a dra­co­nian fu­ture sim­i­lar to that of Nine­teen Eighty-Four. Roger Levy’s The Rig (Ti­tan, £8.99) fol­lows the for­tunes of two dif­fi­cult young men: Alef is emo­tion­less, with an ei­de­tic mem­ory, and Pel­lon­horc is self-cen­tred and psy­chotic. To­gether, they scheme to take con­trol of the vast, multi-planet busi­ness ven­ture known as “the Whis­per”. Earth is no more, and hu­mankind has taken refuge in a dis­tant star sys­tem. On many of its plan­ets, reli­gion has been ban­ished and re­placed with a sys­tem called Af­ter­Life. At birth, cit­i­zens are im­planted with de­vices that record their lives; af­ter death, they are frozen and stored, their recorded ex­is­tences pass­ing into the public do­main to be judged and voted on and the win­ners re­warded with a sec­ond chance to live. How Alef and Pel­lon­horc rise to power, and how Af­ter­Life came into ex­is­tence, are at the heart of this meaty, am­bi­tious novel; Levy lays bare the ex­cesses of cap­i­tal­ism and the cor­rupt­ing power of un­reg­u­lated con­trol.

Jeff Noon’s novel is a heady psy­che­delic mix, packed with lit­er­ary al­lu­sions, which bril­liantly ex­plores no­tions of self and iden­tity

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