The Subjugate, by Amanda Bridgeman (Angry Robot 978-0857667717, $12.99, 400pp, trade paperback) November 2018
I have not had the pleasure of reading Amanda Bridgeman’s six-book Aurora series, nor her previous standalone novel, The Time of the Stripes. But if they are half as good as her newest singleton, The Subjugate, I will heartily search them out with the guaranteed prospect of enjoying them thoroughly. This new book combines convincing near-future forecasting with great characters and a police-procedural murder mystery with some neat twists and turns to achieve full page-turner status—all without sacrificing intelligence for thrills. It is also refreshing in not being a dystopia, but rather a depiction of civilization and humanity picking themselves up after a crisis and soldiering on.
The time is the middle of the 21st century (we learn that a few years back, in 2040, there came an unspecified breakdown of old technological paradigms, from which society has now recovered); the place is San Francisco and environs; the span of action is only a few days. And our heroes are two cops: a woman named Salvi Brentt and a man named Mitch Grenville. It is through Salvi’s POV that we receive all the narrative. We are never privy to Mitch’s thoughts or inner feelings, and this is a mirror to Salvi’s frustrating circumstances as well. For although she and Mitch are partners of some months’ duration, he remains an enigmatic figure to her. Their developing relationship is a major part of the story’s attraction and also plays a part in solving their current case.
It all starts with report of a murder in a town called Bountiful, an hour or so outside San Francisco. Bountiful is an engineered community, a “pullaway” town. In the wake of the 2040 Crash, groups have been divesting themselves of technology—at least the ultra-sophisticated digital kind—and living off the grid. Bountiful happens to have the additional organizational principle of being centered on the Children of Christ, a stringent religion. There are a few non-believers resident in the town, however. (And here readers might find echoes of policeman Harrison Ford’s famous foray among the Amish, Witness.)
With the local cops stymied by the anomalous murder, the city cops arrive. Mitch and Salvi immediately begin digging into the death of the young woman named Sharon Gleamer. She’s been raped, and the word “pure” has been carved into her flesh. It seems fairly likely that the death has been caused by some neurotic church member. But then comes another factor.
Nearby to Bountiful is the private prison-cum-rehab settlement known as the Solme Complex, after its founder and current “mayor,” scientist Attis Solme. Here, male sex offenders are subjected to surgical and operant-conditioning interventions that eventually turn them into quasi-lobotomized—but oh-so-safe—”Serenes.” (When we learn the details of the Solme procedure, visions of A Clockwork Orange immediately arise.) Midway through their treatment, still potentially dangerous, the prisoners are called “Subjugates.” And both Serenes and Subjugates are hired out to Bountiful to perform various civic and private tasks. How likely is that one of these convicts could be the murderer?
Their investigation leads Salvi and Mitch into various intriguing venues, as we expect in any good crime tale, whether the heroes are PIs or cops. Into the Complex itself, where they take the measure of Attis Solme and his work, and meet Serenes and Subjugates face-to-face. Into the tidy houses of Bountiful, where the pieties of the Children of Christ are revealed as at least partly hypocritical. Into San Francisco, where some citizens from Bountiful are sneaking via bullet train to participate in a second, secret enterprise funded by Solme: the Church of Connectivity, which seems to stand in opposition to Bountiful’s creed. And into a creepy virtual reality called U-Stasis.
But of equal weight to the investigation is the developing dynamics of the cop partnership. Gradually we learn why Mitch is a heavy-drinking bag of grief: he’s still processing the murder of his girlfriend, a crime for which he was initially suspected. His problems are relatively upfront. But Salvi is a tamped-down powder keg, still coming to grips with trauma from her teen years that happens to dovetail painfully with the climate at Bountiful. Although their accommodations to each other and their eventual resolution of feelings might be protracted a tad too long, it remains ultimately suspenseful and engaging—especially when Salvi begins to have suspicions about Mitch’s role in the Bountiful murders.
So we can award Bridgeman an A for the crime aspect of her hybrid tale, and also a good mark for the SF half. Her portrayal of how 21st-century cops utilize the technology of their era—nothing like having a handy AI to fill out all those tedious forms and transcribe interviews—rings authentically and innovatively. I’m reminded of similar speculations in Adam Roberts recent crime duology. The nature of life in a generally beneficent—but occasionally glitchy—surveillance society is limned well. And the matter of criminal reform receives a fine workout, raising issues of utilitarianism and morality. Bridgeman has conceived a fine objective-correlative marker to distinguish the Serenes and Subjugates: a metal headband dubbed the “halo.” A nice visual signifier that plays its own part in the tale.
We learn from Bridgeman’s bio that she studied film at school, and this shows in the cinematic slickness of the tale. I won’t say it’s all surface, because we do get some fairly substantial interior life in Salvi’s case, but it is definitely big-screen-amenable and offers several prime set pieces of action, especially in the extended climax. Nothing wrong at all with this approach.
Joining the acclaimed ranks of such tales as John Varley’s “The Barbie Murders” and Robert Sawyer’s Red Planet Blues, The Subjugate lays down a thin blue line of imperfect justice across the chaos of future crimes.
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