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.
Next up for SPSFC round two was ARvekt, Book 1 (of 1 so far) of the Instant Reality series, by Craig Lea Gordon.
Alrighty! This one started with a bang and a nice gory opening, which immediately drew me in and let me know how serious shit was, even though .. well look. In an artificial reality, the stakes are only as high as the storyteller’s ability to write in an edited version of reality where the protagonists get through. And I’m not saying the stakes weren’t high. They were super high. So was the storyteller’s ability. So was I. Everyone and everything involved in this story was just the highest. I kid, but that was the way I was left feeling, you know?
The over-arching question in this book was, “what even is real, man, like, okay, say if a dude gets shot in the face but then it turns out, you know, that the bullets were just an illusion and the blood-splatters on the floor were, like, drawn there, and also the guy’s face was a simulation and he didn’t know it – and so was the floor and also the gun probably … you know … what if … what was the question?”
ARvekt is a book that dares to ask that whole thing I just said.
I read Gordon’s Obey Defy before this one, which was a stand-alone novella in a similar setting. It could almost be the same world but the technology and history had played out somewhat differently. Still, if you’re into cyberpunk and questioning the nature of reality, both of these stories would definitely be your jam. And when it comes to combining the sanitised artificialness of a highly technological (but illusory) post-scarcity utopian world with entirely-gritty realism, Gordon’s your guy.
I was struck, in reading this book, how much I was letting the scenic cues and the visual descriptions wash over me. This was ultimately a psychedelic trip set to words, the cool shape-shifting weapons systems and the action-packed plot just sort of weaving through the bright and dizzying backgrounds to hold everything together. The grimy dystopian future of the opened lotus is captivating in its contrast, and the weaving-together of the overlapping worlds is really well done. In this story, setting is quite literally a character.
So, the world of the future is regulated by a benevolent AI overlord, people immersed in augmented reality layers (thanks to “ARvekt” implants directly inside their heads) to such an extent that the very nature of what is real and what isn’t has become beyond blurred. A nasty war between humans and AI had taken place, but right from the start it is clear that we’re being misled about something. Probably everything.
Ix, our helpful AI presence, is simply too pervasive and omnipotent at times. In a world composed of data, a construct capable of wholesale manipulation of data would rule and the plucky rebels wouldn’t have a chance. I was left, at times, feeling like the odds were insurmountable and no matter what people did to cut away the layers of illusion, there was no way to know they had escaped. It was the classic “turns out we never stopped dreaming” trope and conundrum from a lot of immersed-in-simulation stories: how do any of the characters know when it’s really over?
The interweaving narratives were interesting to see, and never got to a point where I was annoyed to skip from one to the other, although they were active and episodic-cliffhanger enough that I was flipping pages good and fast.
The sex-o-meter pinged in with a single raised eyebrow out of a possible “oo-er, don’t mind me nurse, I’ve had colder thermometers.” To be honest I don’t know what it’s on about but this was more about cyber-espionage and running gunfights and explosions through a hallucinogenic wasteland, so there wasn’t much room for sex.
Plenty of gore here, both simulated and real (OR WAS IT???). I adored the old school battlemech suit that just up and creamed a whole bunch of guys, it was fucking hilarious. Three-and-a-half flesh-gobbets out of a possible five.
ARvekt was almost entirely high-definition digitally enhanced WTF, cover to cover. It’s not my usually preferred brand of WTF, but it certainly hit the spot. Love a good poking and peel-back on the nature of shared experiences and communication, a story like this can effortlessly undermine what we as an information-sharing species hold dear – and we did it to ourselves! Any similarities to current issues we face with social media and misinformation can safely be disregarded as an accidental coincidence. I’m kidding, you should be deeply concerned. I give ARvekt a giant computer-generated Elmo with a singularity in its mouth and eyes made out of deep-sea mining drills, out of a possible HAL-9000.
My Final Verdict
Now look, augmented-reality cyber-noir action thrillers aren’t exactly my thing. But I enjoyed this book and if you’re a fan of the genre you’re likely to get even more out of it than I did. Three stars! But this is just, like, my opinion, man.