|Design by Julia Lloyd|
Titan Books, 8 May 2018
I'm grateful to Titan for an advance copy of this book.
How to sum up The Rig? The Godfather in space, but more tricksy? A SPACE noir? The apotheosis of social media?
None of those are quite right - but they all have a bit of truth.
In the future, Earth is abandoned to ecological catastrophe and humanity has migrated to the System to live on terraformed worlds. It's a hard life (one of those planets is simply called 'Bleak' and it lives up to that) and a short one, fifty being a good age. Contradicting shiny expectations of the future, disease hasn't been conquered (several of the characters here suffer form incurable cancer) and corruption is widespread. Star Trek this isn't.
But with things so hard, and religion - 'goddery' - generally disdained, people need something to believe in and this role is taken by AfterLife, a system of preserving the near-dead in stasis until their condition is curable. Memories are harvested first, and when cures are found, public votes - based on the lives of the preserved - determine who will receive them.
Against this background, two very different boys meet on the sole remaining 'religious' planet, Gehenna, a place of harshly fundamentalist beliefs. (Actually there is another - referred to as 'the unsaid planet', a place so fiercely protective of its secrets that even to mention it risks death). Pellonhorc is cruel, mercurial and obsessive. Alef has difficulty empathising and thinks in numbers. (I sense the author has autism in mind but he doesn't say so). They seem an odd pairing but, forced together by events, go on to be friends - of a sort - and, as the book's blurb says, to remake the System. Certainly their relationship is at the centre of this book. It's complex, incomplete and at times baffling, but drives both men.
The book follows Alef's life forwards through 'SigEvs' - significant events - which are supposed to be what the voter will use to decide whether a subject is to be cured or left in suspended animation. At the same time, we see a separate story unfold, told from various points of view in the hardscrabble town of Lookout, on the planet Bleak. The main characters here are a policeman (Bale) a journalist/ writer (Razer) and an engineer (Tallen).
Bale has been suspended from duty after joining the pursuit of a serial killer while off duty, and while drunk. Razor has been sent by her AI, Cynth, to record Bale's 'TruTale'. And Tallen, well - Tallen wakes up one day in hospital and is never the same again.
This part of the story is twisty and - with its grim streets, hard bitten cops and air of sleaze and corruption - supplies the nourish tinge to the book, as Bale and then Razer attempt to work our what's been going on. Some kind of cover up, seemingly - but of what? And why? Whatever it is, it's worth killing for and everyone who gets near it seems to be in danger. There's a real atmosphere of menave here and a distinct sense that nothing is what it seems: trust nobody, not even yourself.
It's a violent book, with plenty of death. Some of this is foreseen (all that disease) or foreseeable (given all that gangsterism), some of it comes out of the blue (despite the efforts of the Lookout policy). There's no saying who will be next, and doubly so once the two parts of the story emerges, which only happens slowly. Indeed it's not till the last hundred pages or so that it all really begins to fit together. If you love a slowly unfolding, satisfying mystery then you'll enjoy this, likewise if you're a fan of convincing, well thought out world building. On the evidence of this book, Levy excels in creating beautiful, and believable, worlds and it helps that this is a longish book, so he can take his time to build up the atmosphere, whether of the seedy town with its dives and pre fab housing, the underground racetracks through which hurricane winds blow, or the heaving seas containing the rigs which are the key to Bleak's economy. He warps language itself to indicate the alienness of the System, even if it is peopled by humans - so, we have, as well as 'doddery', 'putter' and 'screenery' and a slew of tongue twisting character names (Pelonhorc, but also Pireve, Dixemexid, Maerleyand and so on).
Overall a weirdly thrilling slice of SF, with a great deal of human reality to it and some great characters. One not to miss.
For more information about The Rig see the publisher's website here.
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