Reviewed by Alexandra Pierce
Illyria City was set up as a haven for scientists in a world gone mad thanks to the Reaction: a non-denominational religious upheaval that swept the globe. George Simling is a native; his mother, Ruth, fled America and found her way there. Watching late-night TV, George encounters a programme on ASPUs, or Advanced Sexual Pleasure Units. They are one use for the human-like robots called syntecs: robots with a layer of living skin over the top. (Anyone not getting chills and flashbacks to Terminator was born in the wrong era.) And he finds himself impossibly attracted to Lucy, an ASPU showcased on the show.
The narrative follows George as he both visits Lucy and meets some other Illyrians, both of which encounters begin to change the way George views himself and his city. It’s no spoiler (since it’s mentioned in the blurb) to flag the fact that George ends up leaving the city, with Lucy, and going to the Outlands: the area surrounding Illyria, composed of endlessly-warring religious micro-states. Where Lucy would be viewed as a demon. Drama ensues…
I am left torn by this book. On the one hand, the world imagined by Beckett is a compelling one. The idea of an extreme religious reaction to the changes and technology of the modern world isn’t a new one, but the glimpses of how the world got to where it is in the book are fascinating. As a Christian myself, I found the portrayal of Christians immensely challenging, and it made me think long and hard about my attitudes, and those of my Christian friends. I don’t think the sort of reaction Beckett imagines would ever happen across the entire globe, at the same time, but it’s nonetheless a confronting and thought-provoking suggestion.
Beckett’s portrayal of Illyria City is perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the entire story: the one place where scientists of all stripes can be safe in a crazy-religious world, the one place where technology is both permitted and is thriving, and a place with its own internal issues. The two main problems confronting it are an immigrant workforce, who are not allowed to be citizens because they’re not scientists, and – connected to that – a restriction on freedom of speech. Religion is outlawed in Illyria; only that which can be proved by experiment is permissible in the City. For scientists with religious beliefs, and for the immigrant workforce coming from the religious Outlands, this leads to great difficulties. It’s one of the reasons why the City is seeking to replace its immigrants with robots – something I’m sure any number of Western countries would rather like the sound of. There is a definite suggestion, here, that the fanaticism of both sides is unhelpful.
Unfortunately, neither the story itself nor the characters are the best use of the world Beckett has created. For a start, although I think he’s meant to be in his twenties George never really moves beyond being a whiny, self-absorbed adolescent. This in itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since there are plenty of real people just like that; but the events that he faces are such that he ought to have matured at least a little. And Beckett never seems to suggest that this lack of growth in George is a problem, and in fact apparently rewards him for it. He was an unlikeable and unsympathetic character, and one of the reasons why I kept reading was to find out whether he did eventually grow up. I was disappointed.
Then there’s the three women who are central to George’s entire life: his mother, Ruth; the prostitute, Lucy; and the enigmatic, unapproachable Marija, about whom there is very little to say. Aside from George, these are the only other characters who are developed at all.
Ruth never wanted to be a mother and spends all of her time in virtual reality. I think she may be the most interesting character of all, actually. Clearly damaged by her experience of the Reaction, she is self-involved and hedonistic. She eventually does achieve a modicum of self-awareness, and what she does with it is the most telling aspect of the entire book, for me.
Lucy should have been the most absorbing character. We discover, with George, that the self-evolving facets of her (and every other robot’s) programming can occasionally go ‘haywire’, resulting in genuine evolution (did no programmer think of that, really? Have these people not seen Lawnmower Man and any number of other films and books?). George tries to take advantage of this, in theory for Lucy’s benefit, and of course things go badly. The one thing that prevents Lucy from being the pivot of the story is that we rarely see her for herself. Partly this results from it being told in the first person, by George; but there are ways around that. Partly, I think, it relates inherently to the desire to focus on the human – even when ostensibly the whole point is to question what it means to be ‘human’ or ‘alive.’
Finally, I also had issues with the narrative structure. Although told from the first person, there were occasional ‘meanwhile, back on the ranch’ interludes which I found quite disruptive and annoying; they could have been incorporated much more smoothly, and at more appropriate times in the story.
This is a debut novel. The magazine Asimov’s described it as “One of the most accomplished novel debuts to attract my attention in some time,” and Interzone said it is “incredible”. Much as my nerve amazes me, I have to disagree with them. It would not have taken much to make it that novel, but it didn’t happen.