In Deja Vu‘s opening chapter, a woman named Saskia has twelve hours to figure out who killed her secretary and stuffed her in the fridge.
But it’s when she works out – with the help of some clever computering – that the murderer is herself that we know something really weird’s going on.
Turns out the investigation is a test; that Saskia is a criminal being controlled through a computer chip implanted in her head to become an agent for the EU police; that, if she refuses to work for them, or runs away, she’ll die.
Oooh! I thought. State repression and an exploration of personhood and technology! It will be like Nikita but futuristic and good!
Sadly, after the first couple of chapters, Saskia is shunted sideways to make room for David: an English academic, suspected of bombing a research facility twenty years ago and killing his wife, who’s encouraged by a mysterious masked woman to return to the scene of the bombing and destroy a virtual world he once worked on. What follows is a really tedious thriller plot, as David goes on the run from the police, with Saskia and a member of the British police hunting him. There is also time travel.
The problem I had with Deja Vu was that genuinely interesting, SFnal stuff gets subordinated to this thriller plot, which for at least three-quarters of the book might as well take place in the present day. For instance, there’s talk of capital punishment and mind-wiping as established punishments, and the EU has its own FBI analogue – but once the action moves to England there’s no sign of any of the political climate that’s brought these developments about. The virtual world David created and must destroy is apparently full of artificial intelligences for which it is a prison – but, again, nothing is made of this dystopian premise. And although Saskia’s gradual rediscovery of her own criminal past, her struggle with what it means to be a person without memory, is a theme throughout the novel, it turns out that essentially her entire psyche is based on her suffering a sexual assault. Her whole identity is “rape victim”, and, sure, she was really fucking angry about it – her crime was enacting revenge on her attackers – but, really? There was nothing else important in her past?
Deja Vu feels like an interesting novel buried in a marketing category. It’s such a pity that that damn thriller plot and that white male academic (*cough* Robert Langdon *cough*) get in the way of a story about a woman struggling to define herself under state control.