If Then by Matthew De Abaitua
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In retrospect, I should have suspected that a sci-fi novel written by the amanuensis of Will Self would be challenging, upsetting, entertaining and thought-provoking. Harrowing in places too. Because it is most certainly all of these things. In a near post-digital-apocalyptic future, a small community is given over to The Process, an AI algorithm, which receives data from biotech implants in the heads of the inhabitants to provide the population with all that they need to survive and thrive, to the mutual benefit of all. The community has regressed, technologically, but only because The Process had identified the need for it.
The metrics of happiness required old rituals, old ways of doing things, and so time was set aside within the work schedule for the townspeople to make their own trades.But thrown into the mix are seemingly random and unfathomable evictions, engendering not only fear of being unwanted but more terrifyingly the fear that thinking negatively makes you surplus to the requirements of mutual happiness. And James is the town's bailiff, a volunteer whose implants take away his control over his actions whilst he clambers into his mechanical armour and performs the evictions, something for which he is feared and reviled. The only eviction scene we witness is an amazing piece of writing, part Wicker Man (Edward Woodward, not Nicholas Cage) with its strange pageantry, part Rebecca Riots with insurgents vainly trying to defend the evictees, part Pacific Rim with James' motorised battle suit.
At the opening, James is walking without his armour outside the town and discovers an automaton dressed in the garb of a British soldier, with dog tags that read J Hector, caught in barbed wire, whom he takes home and then to the mysterious Institute where the reader is introduced to Omega John, disturbing leader of the eponymous... what, cabal? Secret laboratory? That's not to be known yet.
So far so weird, but then here comes the harrowing part.
James stops receiving his rations from The Process, and his replacement is chosen, leading him to fear his own eviction, so he follows John Hector, his simulacrum, out of the town and into a staged recreation of the Gallipoli landings in The Great War, where they both become stretcher bearers on the beaches and dunes. The incredible, torturous hell of their existence is exhaustively detailed, and it is hard to read, although undoubtedly drawn from diaries and the experiences of people like Stapledon and Lewis Fry Richardson, suggested by avatars who appear in the novel. The purpose of war, it seems, is to re-create the 'real-life' historical John Hector that The Process has identified is needed for the benefit of the town of Lewes.
It's befuddling in parts, but erudite throughout, and as a happy pseudo-Luddite, I was pleased to note a number of pointed observations on the purposeless that is the plague of modern society. For example, James...
...tried to remember what it used to be like here but he had almost no specific memories of shopping, just so many dreams of unthinking gliding automation.But it also presages the growing fears about AI, explored recently by Stephen Hawking, and taken on in De Abaitua's next book, The Destructives, where newly sentient AIs 'emerge' and immediately withdraw to the far side of the galaxy, away from the humans who were their creators.
If you like a challenging read, worry about the human mind and our cognitively dissonant yearnings for self-destruction and self-preservation, or you're interested in the horrors of war or the Gallipoli landings of 1915, or you have a yen for dystopian near-futures, or are a fan of Brian Aldiss, Aldous Huxley (whose brother makes an indirect appearance) or, indeed, Olaf Stapledon, then you should pick up a copy as soon as you can.