This review is part of my judging effort for the SPSFC. For a little intro to the whole thing and an explanation of my judging style, see this practice review.
Week nine of the #SPSFC read-a-rama brought us Rise, Last Chance book one, by K. T. Hanna.
There’s a lot going on under the surface of this story that at first glance was maybe not explored very much, but it did leave a lot for the reader to enjoy on their own. For my part, I was immediately charmed by the small Doctor Who reference right up front – although I have to point out, that is not how you use a TARDIS, and it’s certainly not how you capitalise TARDIS, Hanna.
The opening of the story was confusing but definitely intriguing, and this theme continues throughout the book. The premise, in short, is that … someone or something … is enabling the resurrection of people just after death, giving them a second chance at life – provided they adhere to the terms of service. This delightfully chilling take on “nobody reads the terms of service” isn’t quite played as solidly as it could be, but the main moving parts are there.
This book was marketed as “gamelit dark contemporary science fiction,” and I have to admit I have no clue what that means but if any book is gamelit, it’s this one. You die, you wake up with an essentially virtual reality augmentation feeding you instructions and data, telepathically and also through a kind of heads up display built into your eyesight. Also, you get moderate-level superpowers based in some way on how you died. You are given assignments. They start small and easy and get gradually more difficult. If you pass an assignment, you advance in grade and unlock new abilities (complete with VR HUD padlock icon), and get paid. If you fail, or refuse to comply, you are in violation of your terms of service and your “contract” is terminated. That means y’dead. Gamelit. I’m with it.
A very interesting premise, I’m sure you’ll agree, and one that raises just – God, so many questions. Prepare for an awful lot of them not to be answered. You don’t get much information about your first life, so why would you expect any about your second?
I was interested to see whether anyone refused to be part of the Second Chance program, thus choosing death over service. Would a person do anything they were told, given that second chance? Or is it too abstract an idea to convince someone? Would you tell yourself you hadn’t really died, that you’d just been knocked out or injured – but now there is an agency inside your head, capable of killing you, so you’d better do as you’re told?
This wasn’t necessarily explored very much as a concept – but it was the point at which it started to dawn on me that this whole story was a brilliant, if slightly rub-your-face-in-it, allegory for life. Specifically, life in the service sector (or just upper-middle-class-or-lower life in general).
I saw some complaints about this book, and its failure to address the idea that the characters were being forced to do things they didn’t want, under threat of death. And the fact that nobody said “this is slavery, I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees.” Anyone making this complaint, seems to me, is very privileged, very naïve, and hasn’t actually stopped to think about how life works. Because when you live paycheque to paycheque, and depend on a job for the roof over your head and the food on your table, and are one missed shift away from homelessness and starvation, there’s pretty much no difference between first life and Second Chance. You’d rather die on your feet than live on your knees? Chances are you’re already making that choice already, every day. And you choose to live. For enough money to survive but never to be free.
Look, I’ll circle back to that, but there were some other really interesting facets of this story that I like more the more I think about them. For one thing, it was told in first person and the protagonist was never (as far as I saw, and after a while I was looking for it) identified as male or female. It honestly doesn’t matter, and that was a really interesting choice for Hanna to make – there was a lot of fluidity in Dare’s relationships with friends and potential love interests, allowing the reader to really make up their own minds about what was going on. I would have thought it’d get awkward or difficult to maintain, and it certainly went on well beyond the point where I could tell myself it was an unintentional bit of vague-outery … but it held up really well.
On the less entertaining side, we have a character who is six feet tall and still gets irritated when he can’t reach things? Fuck outta here. If you’re six feet tall, you’re tall. You don’t get to be annoyed at stuff like that. Also, the kids have names like Orion, Cyan and Dare. And I think only Cyan had the “weird hippie parents” excuse. Oh well, it helped them stand out a bit as characters so can’t argue with that. There were a few small technical issues, for example some parts where Dare communicates with the SC and it’s not italicised to show internalised communications, but it’s easy enough to figure out.
Some parts did a bit of a number on my suspension of disbelief. Some of the things that Dare brings to SC’s attention, and SC winds up thinking and hearing about for the first time, is really basic stuff. What have all the humans drafted into the SC program up to now been doing? Is everyone else really a sheep, and Dare is the first one to question things?
Other parts straight-up enraged me, until they developed further and I saw them for what they were. The SC draftees are expected to continue to live their normal lives and blend in, while doing this additional bullshit secret agent work. This is really only possible in a small network (or terrorist cell?) of SC agents covering for each other, and this sort of works out. I’m still not clear on how many people get brought back. Is it everyone to have an accident and “survive”? It’s one of many unanswered questions, but the SC program is apparently latent in all of us. So go ahead, have a fatal accident. You get one free one! Pro tip: If you recover and don’t start hearing a voice in your head and get superpowers, that means you still have a free one!
But yeah – to circle back to the point – it was the very stage at which I was almost shouting at my Kindle that I realised this had to be an intentional allegory. At one point, our protagonist is overwhelmed and has no reasonable way forward. Performing missions means discovery. Discovery means death. Not performing missions means death. The SC says it will take Dare’s name off the mission roster for a few days, to rest. They’ll only activate Dare in the case of emergencies, the SC says. And what do you know, twelve seconds later there’s an emergency.
Anyone who’s been told they can take time off, and only need to come in to the office / restaurant / supermarket if there’s a desperate need, only to be immediately informed there is a desperate need, will find this familiar.
Don’t like it? Die on your feet, cunt.
This was another essentially young adult outing, with some mooning and speculating with a side-order of affectionate description … but not really any sex. I imagine it’s going to be difficult to go there without opening the box and finding the cat dead or alive, if you know what I mean. Anyway, as you might expect, I give Rise a small piece of radioactive matter and a haphazardly half-assembled gadget for detecting atomic decay and breaking a vial of cat poison out of a possible awkwardly strained metaphor.
As the missions grew more serious, as in many video games the stakes were raised and the body-count increased. Also the book started with the protagonist literally getting smoked by a falling power line and dying grossly en route to the hospital. That was the prologue. Still, for all that, there are definitely gorier books. Two-and-a-half flesh-gobbets out of a possible five.
There was tons of WTF to be had here. The SC program is a failsafe built into humans and has been around for thousands of years? What’s with all the random file retrieval tasks? Is it just how gamelit works? For that matter, does the game reward system just happen to mirror the rat race futility of real life, or is there a deeper lesson that was intentionally planted here? The shadows, the portent ability and glitches, the fate of the other electric-supers, it was all very interesting. I still had no real idea what was going on in the story at the 80% mark, and I like that. Others might not. I’ll give it a Cyan out of a possible Neo Was The Impostor on the WTF-o-meter.
My Final Verdict
The SC program’s sad, almost wistful attempts to be Dare’s friend, while simultaneously being the (heh) author of every shitty thing that’s happening in Dare’s life and being utterly beholden to the SC’s higher directives, had middle management written all over it and convinced me this couldn’t be anything but an intentional dig at life in the service industry or other high-value, low-paying jobs. Either that or it was all subconscious and Hanna desperately needs a vacation. All in all a really interesting story that left me feeling thoughtful. Three stars on the Amazon / Goodreads scale.