Genre: SF, dystopian | Format: Trade paperback (ARC) | Publisher: Gollancz | Publication date: 19th June 2014 | My rating: 5/5
The Ficials. They were meant to be the answer to everything. Engineered ‘artificial’ life forms: designed to be better, tougher. And really hard to kill.
But humanity blew it. Fear took over. Man turned on the Ficials, and everything went to hell. A war ripped the world apart. There’s not much left. The Reals hold the countryside, the Ficials are barricaded in the ruined cities. Each intent on wiping the other out. Neither side quite able to do it.
And now one Ficial, a taxi-driver called Kenstibec is on a journey from one end of hell to the other – a road trip from Edinburgh to London.
Speaking as someone who doesn’t read a lot of dystopian genre fiction… I want this movie.
This book is a lean one – not even 300 pages – and the story reflects that. It’s a spare, sometimes bare-bones kind of story, but this is precisely where a lot of its impact comes from. And one of the things, perhaps the most important thing, to have been jettisoned here is any sense of an emotional journey on the MC’s part. And no, before you start to worry, that’s actually not a criticism…
Kenstibec has no particular feelings. On anything. As an early-model Ficial, those were stripped away to make him more efficient. And indeed, he is. Shockingly so at times… But in an interesting contrast to this is the book’s female lead character, Starvie – one of the later Pleasure Models that the Ficials’ creator, Dr Pander, had never intended to be built (we humans, do, after all, have our own priorities…) – has her emotional core left largely intact, and thanks to this, her Ficial nature and Kenstibec’s observations of her, we get a somewhat disturbing yet darkly funny take on human emotions. As a reader who places a lot of importance on being able to sympathise with characters, it was admittedly a little difficult to manage at times, but again, that impact is undoubtedly there.
If I can pick one aspect of it that really impressed me, though, it was the aforementioned dark humour. Kenstibec doesn’t walk around cracking jokes the whole time; far from it, but a good few of his observations, as well as his misadventures on the road, come across as very dryly witty, however unintentional this is on his part.
As for the misadventures, any of my fellow Brits who read this may well appreciate the hilarious use to which a shopping trolley is put…
For a story that’s relatively low-key throughout much of its first half, it certainly cranks up the action for the big finish. That said, it never feels overblown, even when all kinds of things are blowing up. Kenstibec’s perspective at work again means we get an almost minimalist approach to The Grand Finale here, and this may result in kind of a hit-or-miss with readers in general, but as far as I’m concerned it works well. There’s no emotionally overwrought angst-fest about what he ought to do; he makes his choice and sticks with it, as he’s done throughout the story – even, on notable occasion, when he’s doing so at great risk to himself.
Look out for the car battery scene. That is all.
It’s a rare and noteworthy debut indeed that can have this much impact over a mere 264 pages. Jon Wallace wastes not a single one of his words here, and with a book pile that’s as heavy on the chunky fantasy novels as my own, sometimes ‘lean and mean’ is just what you need.
Now I’m wondering if there’s going to be a sequel…