Books of the month: Science fiction and fantasy
Virtual friends in near-future Britain, global breakdown, and the price of crime
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