About a third of the way through The Red Men, Matthew de Abaitua’s ravishing new-old (I’ll explain in a moment) cyberpunk nightmare, is very likely the creepiest scene I’ve ever encountered in literature. Not just in genre fiction. In literature. I’m not going to spoil it for you. You’ll know it when you hit it. And your brain will leap out of your skull and try to escape the building, flopping and squelching across the floor until it’s stuck hurling itself ineffectually against a door or gate or other obstacle. Help me.
You’ll want to chase after it so you can read the rest of the book.
Set in a fairly near-future London in which a Blue Ant-like company, complete with maddeningly opaque Hubertus Bigend figure, has developed the technology to cybernetically capture and simulate individual human personalities well enough to monetize it, The Red Men tells the story of what happens when the narrator’s ne’er-do-well poet friend finally sells out to the Man — or rather, The Monad — and runs afoul of a rogue scanned personality (a “Red Man” in the parlance) that’s tired of just appearing on screen.* Only then does our narrator (also employed by Monad), who has been busy scanning and uploading an entire Liverpool suburb for use as a crackpot policy sandbox, realize that he’s in even more trouble than his friend is.
Notice that up there I specified that the personality copying technology was at a level good enough to monetize. Not perfect. The process is still deeply flawed, carried out by a single powerful but imperfect artificial intelligence that has only an approximate understanding of human psychology and is working more from a person’s data trail than from actual contact or study. But even these bad copies have value: they usually have all of the originals’ skills and talents that are of value to the economy. People eagerly submit to the process in the hopes that having two of them — one to work, one to live — will set them free. FREE!
When the action switches to the narrator’s plight, the novel’s eerie prescience** about our current predicaments in both the UK and the US comes into sharp focus. None of this would be possible in a functional western democracy. Monad is the product of an overburdened and ambitious AI, but the AI is the product of bored plutocrats whose sociopathy is unchecked by civil society and has thus run wild even before the bored plutocrats start grasping for biological immortality by means of surgically implanted hog organs — and glands.
Opposing this monstrosity? A bunch of flaky bohemian artist types who have adopted “Rationing Chic” — a deliberate regression to the analog world of World War II, even to wearing actual period garments because their natural fibers and overall coarseness make them poor prospects for infiltration by “smart” technology because in this world of screens that can crawl about the landscape like data-hungry slugs, even your clothing is feeding the Monad machine. Oh, and most of them squat or sleep rough and, naturally, do a fair amount of good old-fashioned drugs.
You’ve got to read the book to find out if they even have a ghost of a prayer of changing anything.
All this creepy crazy will slide right into your brain on a slick of polished and insanely quotable prose. I had to exercise all the restraint to avoid doubling this review with Matthew de Abaitua zingers. But I’ve got to include two absolute favorites.
“He paced the office, squinting furiously at the staff as if they were piles of burning money which needed extinguishing.”
“His poor dead Dad: the man is gone but the consumer enjoys an eternal afterlife in data.”
Oh, I can’t help it. One more.
“All I ask of power is that when it runs me down, it leaves as light a footprint on my face as possible.”
As this disgraceful Year of our Deranged Demiurge, 2017, dribbles to a close, I’m pretty sure most of us can relate to that last one.
But so is The Red Men a delightful satire that will make you feel better? Hell no. But given that science fiction almost never gets the details right, this book might at least make you glad that the future isn’t going to be very much like this.
*Think of Max Headroom, only Max has a maniacal hatred of Edison Carter, and is a megalomaniac to boot.
** An earlier version of The Red Men was published in 2007; this new Angry Robot edition has been extensively edited and rewritten.