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Inscape (SF) - Louise Carey *****

I've never been a huge fan of dystopian novels or movies - life can be miserable enough without making us even more depressed - but there are exceptions, and Louise Carey's Inscape proved to be one of them. 

Broadly, SF dystopias fall into two categories - bangs and whimpers. In a bang dystopia there is a big, sudden catastrophe, often a nuclear war, a biological disaster (think The Death of Grass) or a touch of the aliens (War of the Worlds, The Day of the Triffids and many more). By contrast, whimper dystopias involve creeping change, traditionally political (1984), but ever since Pohl and Kornbluth's classic The Space Merchants, more likely to be the fault of corporates, which these days are usually a variation on the theme of today's IT giants.

Interestingly, Inscape involves both types of dystopia - so there has been an apocalyptic collapse (not entirely explained), but post-collapse it's the tech corporations that have taken over, with the central character Tanta being under the aegis of InTech - a young agent who is sent into action against the opposing corporation Thoughtfront (I kept reading this as 'Thoughtful', which probably doesn't give the right flavour). The setting gradually reveals itself to be a single, unnamed city divided by a river, which suggested a familiar location.

Carey gives us brilliantly driving action (so much so that I hardly noticed the book was written in the present tense, which I usually find jarring to read). However, there's a lot more to the book than the action. Tanta is a ward of the corporation, brought up her entire life to do their bidding. We get some really interesting psychological aspects here in the way that Tanta and her cohort have effectively been programmed for loyalty - and a striking revelation about the technology that supports this.

Tanta's near super-powered agent ends up in an odd-couple pairing with Cole, a neuroscientist/genius programmer whose memory has been partially wiped. He's over twice her age, unfit and unsuited to the danger of the fieldwork he's thrown into. This gives the storyline considerably more depth than is usually the case in a novel where the main character is only 17.

I was totally immersed in the world that Carey has created here and enjoyed every minute of it. Of course there are plenty of details familiar from other SF novels in terms of the characters having built-in comms and information technology (the 'inscape' of the title), but a combination of well-choreographed action scenes and thoughtful consideration of the impact of the mental manipulation and gradual realisation of what this means made for something more than a typical SF action adventure. I can't wait for the next book, featuring further revelations hinted at when we reach the end of Inscape.

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