I asked recently for recommendations for sci-fi books that I might enjoy, and a few people recommended Anne E Currie's "Pantopticon" series.
"It will be right up your street!" one of them said.
And boy were they right.
I can't remember the last time I read one book after another from the same author, eagerly looking forward to finding a few minutes to read a few more pages.
This week, I have read the first book, "Utopia Five", and, because I enjoyed it so much, the second book, "Conundra", too. I bought the third in the series, "Denizen 43", today, and I expect I'll stay up too late to make a good start on it tonight.
The general set-up
The books are set in the relatively near future - 2025 onwards - and revolve around three key events:
- the creation of the Panopticon, the all-seeing surveillance state, which some love and some hate. Crime is almost - but not entirely - wiped out.
- the "Hot Summer" of 2036. The author describes this as "The Hot Summer: fires, floods, ice storms, and tornados engulf the globe. Over one billion are killed. Mass exoduses occur from many land masses and areas. The refugee population surges."
the work of two brothers*, Lee and Nero, who create virtual reality gaming environments, which are either utopian or dystopian in nature.
The author has said:
"Pondering an experimental choice I made on book #1 not to specify the gender of the main character, Lee. Only 1 person ever noticed as far as I know. Readers split maybe ~60:40 m:f (one nb)."
Whoops. I had indeed not picked up on that.
The first book, "Utopia Five", takes place both within and without the virtual reality environment. It's great fun, while touching on wide range of themes which might fall under an umbrella of "tech ethics": climate change, surveillance, AI, the impact an individual can have on many others, and more. Anne describes it as "What if privacy was outlawed?".
It is, at its heart, a thriller, but it is so wrapped up in the lives of the people with whom Lee interacts - I'd say probably a voyage of self-discovery for Lee - that that is almost secondary.
Genuinely, great fun and interesting at the same time.
The second, "Conundra", was even better.
I got the same kind of joy as I did when I watched the (original) film "Westworld". But, unlike Westworld, in which the antagonists are robots (or are they the humans that programmed the computers which programmed the robots?), in Conundra, the denizens of real-world role-playing-holiday amusement park cum sovereign-ish state are humans.
The plot is fast moving and enjoyable, there's a good twist at the end, which I did not see coming.
Again, the book looks in detail at aspects of tech ethics, and philosophy. Set in a world not subject to - or not benefiting from, depending on the character's perspective - the Pantopticon, it tackles contemporary themes of social scoring, reputation and trust, misinformation and laziness to look beyond what one is shown, and accessibility and representation of minorities in mainstream culture, as well as more regular themes of greed and power. Anne describes this one as "Are some lives worth more than others?".
I really enjoyed this one, and I've got the next book, "Denizen 43", lined up on my eReader for this evening.
It seems churlish to complain about a book being "too cheap", and I welcome affordability of books: everyone should have the chance to enjoy stories, and develop their imagination. But, at 99p per book, for the first two books, I felt almost guilty enjoying it as much as I did. The third was £1.99, so the newer ones are a little more expensive, but, even so...
These would make ideal geeky book club books
I'm not part of a book club, but, if I were, I'd love to discuss these books with similarly geeky friends.
There's just so much to unpack, and the fiction draws upon so many themes relevant to tech today, that it would make for some fascinating, and nuanced, discussions.