Paul Di Filippo reviews The Real-Town Murders by Adam Roberts

The Real-Town Murders, by Adam Roberts (Gollancz 978-1473221451, $28.99, 240pp, trade paperback) US edition April 2018

Locus Magazine, Science Fiction FantasyStarting in the year 2000, with the appearance of his first book, Salt, I have read (and mostly reviewed) all of the non-parody novels from Adam Roberts, except, for some forgotten reason, Gradisil. (Must save one Roberts treat for my dotage.) In those eighteen years he has never repeated himself and never ceased to astound, all while delivering state-of-the-art fantastika that literally no one else could have written. Just when a veteran reader (or a newbie, for that matter) might be tempted to imagine that SF is played-out, Roberts proves that the form has barely begun to yield its riches. Why this man does not have a shelf full of awards, I’ll never know.

Readers who share my delight and admiration will be pleased to hear that the newest novel from Roberts’s febrile hand does not besmirch this rep. It’s near-future quasi-cyberpunk SF which, upon disclosing its premise, might have been reasonably attributed to Cory Doctorow or Charles Stross. But in its language and off-kilter reality, it shares all of Roberts’s unique trademarks: intellectual brilliance, unpredictable plotting, hard-edged surrealism, and jagged, prickly characters who nonetheless command the reader’s loyalties.

The background first: in this unspecified year, the whole world –specifically the UK and the London suburb of Reading, now dubbed Real Town–has been hollowed out by the Shine, a super-duper VR venue where nine-tenths of Earth’s ten billion souls live, work, play, conspire and govern. The inhabitants of the Shine–some resident 24/7, some dipping in and out–follow the old prescription: they lie in a safe place, wired up, and forget the physical world. So far, we hear reverberations of The Matrix (alluded to specifically by one character) and Ready Player One–not to mention the Ur-model for this trope, Simak’s “Huddling Place.” But Roberts, true to his title, is going to pull a fast one on us. We never go into the Shine or even have its wonders vividly described. All the action of the book takes place in meatspace. And here’s where Roberts delivers the frissons.

His landscape is mostly devoid of people. Robots with varying degrees of artificial intelligence manage the means of production and hospitals and even cafes and other rare brick-and-mortar stores. Cars and traffic are dwindling, and everything is getting shabby–but who is left to care? Oddest feature of all: the Shine dwellers wear intelligent mesh exo-skeletons that take some of the humans for muscle-maintaining exercise walks while the humans still remain zonked. The sidewalks are filled with insect-like sleepwalkers. And when humans are forced to converse face-to-face, they find that they have almost forgotten how to do so. This allows Roberts to construct awkward Joycean dialogue akin to something out of Aldiss’s Barefoot in the Head.

Of course, the poor and the luddite and the religious and the skeptically stubborn remain in the real world, and one of these dissenters is our heroine, Alma. She stays out of the Shine because she cannot afford to lose track of time. Why? Her obese, apartment-bound mate and ex-crime-solving partner, Marguerite (echoes of Nero Wolfe!), requires extreme medical interventions every four hours, protocols that only Alma can deliver. Without Alma’s aid, Marguerite dies. Alma is thus tethered by a short leash to her apartment. Incredible limitations for a private investigator.

Yes, that’s Alma’s job, and one that she excels at. And given brain-implant access to “the feed” (a simple, non-augmented kind of internet), she can be highly efficient, quizzing people remotely, viewing surveillance footage, etc. So when Alma gets her latest assignment, to investigate the impossible appearance of a corpse amidst a hermetically sealed robot-driven factory, she feels well up to the investigation. But what she does not at first realize is that the corpse is the tip of a vast conspiracy, a war between the bureaucrats who govern the Real World and those who maintain the Shine.

Before Alma can really get her bearings, she is being pursued, threatened, arrested, shot at, confided-in and even fleetingly helped. The welter of clues, including a massive red herring, are dealt out fairly and ingeniously, so that this hardcore SF novel assumes the equal dimensions of a superb mystery. And over all these activities lurks the ever-present, self-resetting deadline: she must get back to her apartment to minister to Marguerite. The reader is fascinated and appalled on two levels, one inherent in the story, one more meta: can Alma actually do this? And what the hell kind of insanely ambitious writer even sets himself such an incredible storytelling challenge? Needless to say, Roberts achieves the impossible. Despite innumerable cliffhanger moments–this book is as action-stuffed as any thriller–he masters his plotting and narrative hurdles. I shan’t say whether Alma succeeds in her goals.

Part Two of the book brings in another great character, Pu Sto, one of the heavy-duty players in the government conspiracy, on the “good” side insofar as there is one. She and Alma join forces for the endgame. But even Pu Sto’s abilities and connections do not guarantee a victory.

Interspersed among the slambang set pieces are Roberts’s typical meditations on philosophical issues such as the nature of government and war, and the allure of virtuality. The stefnal conceits, in addition to those mentioned, are innumerable. A murderous assault by a flock of repurposed drones is just one such. Never mind a long argument with an intelligent door straight out of PKD. This is a world that is solidly constructed, and it all hangs together beautifully and assumes a tactile reality. Nor does Roberts skimp on the descriptions of nature, including a sky that is famously “the color of a dead channel.”

Towards the end of the book, an incident occurs that made me slap my head at Roberts’s cleverness. Alma and Pu Sto go clambering over the giant face of an effigy.

The White Cliffs of Dover had been sculpted all along their length into the gigantic visages of famous Brits–another attempt at injecting rebrand vibrancy into the declining real-world economy. One of the new wonders of the world, said the PR feeds, and a reason to come to the exciting world of UK!-OK!, where history holds hands with the future and so on, and so forth. The section of coastline they were crossing at the moment was the Great Poets stretch–Alma’s feed supplied the names: Christina Rossetti, staring with expressionless blank beauty out across the waters. Next to her oval face was a goateed sphere balanced on a ruff like a melon on a plate, narrow-nosed and balding, “the Bard” said Alma’s feed, with an invitation to follow through for the Shaking William Experience, all singing, all twerking, all comers welcome.

Besides the acidic satire of this passage, what might such a scenario recall? How about Cary Grant’s famous scramble down Mount Rushmore in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest?

Yes, Roberts has, all along, been giving us his version of a Hitchcock film: the innocent bystander swept up in chaos as ignorant armies clash by night. Retrospectively, you see it all through the lens of that director–although I think Hitch might have had to call in Luc Besson as co-director for the stefnal elements.

In any case, Adam Roberts proves he can out-Alfie even the old master.

Paul Di Filippo has been writing professionally for over thirty years, and has published almost that number of books. He lives in Providence, RI, with his mate of an even greater number of years, Deborah Newton.

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