Book review: Death Ray

Cover of “Death Ray”: a green background, of a sky above an ocean, with a tree branch from top left to middle-ish right. The sky is full of drones. The sub-title is “What’s done cannot be undone”.

I have written before about Anne Currie’s rather excellent “Panopticon” series of books. I actually thought I had written up my thoughts about all the books in the series so far, but it seems that I haven’t. Oops.

Death Ray” is the latest instalment, and I’ve been reading it whenever I’ve had a spare moment.

The whole series is smart - very smart - science fiction (at least, I hope it is fiction), and “Death Ray” does not disappoint. It is a clever, and enjoyable, addition to the series, building on the author’s vision of a re-organised world following a major climate crisis.

It’s hard to write a review for two reasons.

First, I don’t want to accidentally share a spoiler. I think I’ll manage to avoid that, but if you’re planning on reading “Death Ray” anyway, perhaps don’t read any further - just read the book and enjoy it.

Second, I don’t want to look like an idiot by commenting on what I feel are key themes, only to find out that I’ve missed a whole load of stuff. I am far less convinced that I’ll manage to avoid this.

The overt plot is a “whodunnit”, with a twist at the end worthy of Agatha Christie. I didn’t see it coming. Chapters are short - as they are in all the books - so it moves at a fast pace, and there is no dull moment or lull in the plot. If you want to read without thinking too deeply, that’s definitely possible, as the plot stands on its own.

I have read all the books in the “Pantopticon” series so far, and this is my second favourite, behind “Conundra”. I recommend it.

But if you read this book just for fun, I think you’re missing out. It’s not exactly a textbook on tech ethics, but more applied tech ethics, build skilfully into the plot. To me, the central themes of “Death Ray” are bias in artificial intelligence and the impact that training data can have on the output, and something (I’m perhaps not smart enough to put my finger on exactly what it is) to do with power, choice, and responsibility. There are lots of characters with powerful positions, all making impactful decisions, seemingly in isolation, and withholding information from others.

Here’s the catch: I enjoyed the book, but I also felt that I don’t have the knowledge to properly understand and enjoy it fully. That I am missing too much. I am a lawyer, not a tech ethicist and, while I do ethics-related work, I’m all too aware of the gaps in my knowledge.

I would love to read whatever is the literary equivalent of a DVD’s “director’s commentary”, explaining the various ethical issues which are so cleverly woven into the narrative. Yes, that might turn it from escapist fiction into learning but, personally, I’d welcome that.

Perhaps I “just” need to take a course in tech ethics…