Adam Roberts’ latest novel, The Real-Town Murders, is, on the face of it, a fairly conventional SF thriller. It’s set in a future United Kingdom (rebranded UK-OK!) in which most people spend most or all of their time in the Shine, an immersive virtual reality. Even those who don’t use feeds, which give their users access to, basically, the internet, all day, every day, whatever they happen to be doing. Our Heroine is Alma, a private detective who stays out of the Shine, for various reasons, one of which is her partner Marguerite. Marguerite has a debilitating illness genetically engineered so that only Alma can treat it, which she has to do every four hours exactly, within a four-minute window, or Marguerite will die.
Once upon a time, Alma is called upon to solve a seemingly impossible murder: a body is found in the trunk of a car that’s fresh off the production line, made in an entirely automated factory. Advanced CCTV and AI surveillance shows that no humans entered the factory at any point during the making of the car. So how did the body get in the car?
Inevitably, things escalate, and Alma’s drawn into a political battle between the government of the Shine and the government of the Real – who happen to be, between them, the government of the UK.
Conventional on the face of it: I say that because, while I enjoyed The Real-Town Murders, it seemed to be missing a certain Robertsian zing, the conceptual playfulness that makes his non-fiction such fun to read and his novels so, well, not always successful, but challenging, certainly. It’s a technically perfect thriller: the tension ratcheted steadily up by Alma’s regular four-hour deadline (will she make it home in time? will she get past the guards on her house? and so on), the stakes rising just when you’d expect them to. It has some pretty on-point things to say about control: if you’re in the Shine, your very thoughts, the world you experience, is subject to the surveillance, and thus the control, of others; whereas the Real by definition contains uncontrollable elements, even if it’s only inside your own head. That’s a timely and important point, especially in the wake of recent revelations about the misuse of Facebook data; but it’s not quite as subtle as I’d come to expect from Roberts. It’s an excellent thriller with important things to say; but it’s nothing more than that.
(And maybe that’s not quite a fair assessment on its own merits; if this had been anyone but Adam Roberts, maybe I’d be raving about it. But that’s the bias I bring to this book.)
And there my review would have ended, if I hadn’t re-read Kevin Power’s Strange Horizons review of the novel, at lunchtime today in fact. Power reads The Real-Town Murders as a novel about attention and where our attention is best directed.
So, caveat lector: in a novel about attention, we should be careful about what we notice, or we just might discover, when the final page is turned, that we have noticed nothing at all.
Well, I am a competitive English student if nothing else, and that’s practically an invitation to go back to the text and re-engage with it, intellectually and emotionally.
Power’s argument isn’t one I disagree with exactly, but nor do I think it’s quite true to my own experience of the text. Partly this is because I’m not convinced Power shows his workings at every stage of his essay: “for Roberts, the real lives in language.” This feels like an inaccurate statement to make of a novel which is precisely about how the Real cannot be controlled and rendered absolutely; a novel in which people mangle their language when they enter the Real because they can no longer remember how to speak in the presence of others.
What does feel like an interesting avenue of exploration is Power’s attention to Roberts’ Hitchcockian references – beginning with the epigraph to Part 1 from T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land: “Think of the key, each in his prison/Thinking of the key”. It’s attributed to something called North by North Wasteland, apparently a reference to the Hitchcock film North by Northwest. I’ve never seen a Hitchcock film, which is why I missed this way into the text; but I think we can see the series of Hitchcock allusions which Power lists as part of a wider matrix of cultural allusion in the novel. There’s a mini-motif in which characters will make obscure cultural references, only for their interlocutors to look up what they mean on their feeds, or, if they’ve turned their feeds off for privacy purposes, to request that people don’t make such references while they can’t look them up. In other words, the power of cultural reference is subverted by instant access to all the world’s data. The point of allusion, especially in day-to-day interaction, is to signal in-group membership: “if you know what I am talking about then we can be friends”. If you can just look it up, instantly, that power (and as every geek knows, it’s a superpower), that semantic playfulness, is gone.
Hence The Waste Land, a poem which enacts a breakdown of cultural meaning. Adam Roberts’ Real has become a waste land – a waste land bare, specifically, of human interaction, of shared cultural referents and of interest in those shared cultural referents. In an attempt to draw people back into the Real, the government of UK-OK! has carved Mount Rushmore-style heads of famous poets and artists into the White Cliffs of Dover. It is, of course, a futile attempt.
But what’s really interesting is that Roberts is describing this breakdown by engaging in its opposite – by drawing on a shared SFnal culture to create a matrix of coherent meaning. All language does this, of course; but Roberts’ prose is a particularly rich site of semantic and cultural playfulness, as we can see from the Hitchcock references, and from lines like:
There was an impressive popping sound, as if from an alt-reality where the Hindenburg was assailed with a titanic pin rather than fire.
That’s asking us to remember a specific moment of history, and it’s doing so using a specific idiom that feels very SFnal: “alt-reality” is a phrase plucked from SF criticism, surely. This is SF written for geeks – it’s SF being used to create and reinforce in-group links at the same time as it’s describing their erosion. To paraphrase Eliot, Roberts uses these fragments to shore against our ruin. It’s not language per se where the Real lies; it’s in shared history, shared culture, shared experience. And it finds its expression, its in-group, in a long-term queer couple, one of them disabled, one of them a carer, holding the world of the novel, the world of the Real, together.
Conventional, did I say?