Skip to main content

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.

Hardback:  

Kindle:  

Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you

Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

On the Fringe - Michael Gordin *****

This little book is a pleasant surprise. That word 'little', by the way, is not intended as an insult, but a compliment. Kudos to OUP for realising that a book doesn't have to be three inches thick to be interesting. It's just 101 pages before you get to the notes - and that's plenty. The topic is fringe science or pseudoscience: it could be heavy going in a condensed form, but in fact Michael Gordin keeps the tone light and readable. In some ways, the most interesting bit is when Gordin plunges into just what pseudoscience actually is. As he points out, there are elements of subjectivity to this. For example, some would say that string theory is pseudoscience, even though many real scientists have dedicated their careers to it. Gordin also points out that, outside of denial (more on this a moment), many supporters of what most of us label pseudoscience do use the scientific method and see themselves as doing actual science. Gordin breaks pseudoscience down into a n

A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth - Henry Gee *****

In writing this book, Henry Gee had a lot to live up to. His earlier title  The Accidental Species was a superbly readable and fascinating description of the evolutionary process leading to Homo sapiens . It seemed hard to beat - but he has succeeded with what is inevitably going to be described as a tour-de-force. As is promised on the cover, we are taken through nearly 4.6 billion years of life on Earth (actually rather more, as I'll cover below). It's a mark of Gee's skill that what could have ended up feeling like an interminable list of different organisms comes across instead as something of a pager turner. This is helped by the structuring - within those promised twelve chapters everything is divided up into handy bite-sized chunks. And although there certainly are very many species mentioned as we pass through the years, rather than feeling overwhelming, Gee's friendly prose and careful timing made the approach come across as natural and organic.  There was a w

Michael D. Gordin - Four Way Interview

Michael D. Gordin is a historian of modern science and a professor at Princeton University, with particular interests in the physical sciences and in science in Russia and the Soviet Union. He is the author of six books, ranging from the periodic table to early nuclear weapons to the history of scientific languages. His most recent book is On the Fringe: Where Science Meets Pseudoscience (Oxford University Press). Why history of science? The history of science grabbed me long before I knew that there were actual historians of science out there. I entered college committed to becoming a physicist, drawn in by the deep intellectual puzzles of entropy, quantum theory, and relativity. When I started taking courses, I came to understand that what really interested me about those puzzles were not so much their solutions — still replete with paradoxes — but rather the rich debates and even the dead-ends that scientists had taken to trying to resolve them. At first, I thought this fell under