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The Real-Town Murders (SF) - Adam Roberts *****

Of all the contemporary science fiction writers, Adam Roberts can most be relied on to deliver a book that combines an engaging story with extensions of current science and technology that really makes you think - and The Real-Town Murders does this perfectly.

Set in the south east of England, a few decades in the future, this book delivers a trio of delights. The main character, Alma, is faced with constant time pressure as she faces physical and mental challenges (including a lovely homage to North-by-Northwest), there is an apparently impossible locked room mystery and there is fascinating speculation about the impact three technologies - AI, nanotechnology and virtual reality - may have on human life and politics.

Roberts' inventiveness comes through time after time - for example, Alma's partner is locked into a genetically engineered nightmare where she suffers a different medical emergency every four hours which only Alma can fix. It's just a shame, in a way, that Marguerite, the partner, hardly gets a chance to contribute as we are told she has Mycroft Holmes-like abilities. And then there's that locked room - or, rather, the locked boot of a car - where a corpse turns up in the boot at the end of a vehicle production line, despite the car being constantly viewable on video from several directions as it was built and it being clear that no one put the corpse in place.

There's so much going on here, despite this being a short and very readable novel. Admittedly, there are a couple of points where there's an awful lot of talking in rather vague terms (other characters complain about this), but this is relatively painless and we're soon back with the action.

My only real complaint is one that also applies to a scene in a much less sophisticated movie trilogy also dealing with AI and virtual reality - The Matrix. In The Real-Town Murders, towards the end, Alma realises that there is only one possible solution left to explain how the corpse ended up in the boot of the car - but there is another, arguably more likely, solution that simply gets overlooked. I won't say what it is, but Alma would surely have thought of it if she were familiar with the movie Inception.

What's really impressive here is that Roberts manages to make this book both a page-turning adventure and an intelligent and thought-provoking exploration of the benefits and dangers of AI and virtual reality. It's also unusual in that every major character is female (a refreshing contrast to Foundation), though there are plenty of men around - again, part of Roberts' cleverness is that he can do this without trying to justify it in some way in the storyline.

While not as intellectually meaty as The Thing Itself,  this is one of Roberts' best books and a good introduction to his writing. If you aren't already a fan, but you like intelligent speculative fiction, read this and you soon be looking for more titles by Adam Roberts.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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