Over the course of recent months and years, I have come to the firm belief that whatever is in store for humanity, it’s not going to be good. Too many countries have elected indiduals to positions of power who have no right to be there. They have little experience or worse, they couldn’t care less what happens to the people they were elected by and the world around them. To them it’s all about power and how to maintain it. They pay lip service to climate change, and brush the refugee crisis under the carpet. To them, such catastrophes are always someone else’s problem. Very few novels published today focus on what happens when things go well for humanity, instead dydtopian fiction forms the bedrock of a lot of speculative fiction you see in bookstores or online, especially since 2016. In short, bad news sells books.
But that doesn’t mean these books are bad. Quite the opposite, in fact. Some of them are really good. Allow me to introduce you to Reality Testing, by Berlin-based author Grant Price. You’re probably familiar with the cyberpunk genre, made famous by William Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer, which combines a hi-tech futuristic setting with general societal degradation: basically the rich get richer and have access to all the mod cons in technology, and the poor are so far down the bottom of the ladder they have no chance of improving their lot in life. The Berlin of Grant Price’s novel is a perfect example of a society gone worng. It’s the aftermath of the Second Water War, and the Big Five conglomerates have taken control of the city and its citizens, advertising their products and services in very obtrusive ways. They say their technology and policies are in aid of the failing environment, whereas in fact they’re outbidding and out-manoeuvering each other to get a bigger slice of the pie. Automatons known as bulls patrol the streets, dishing out instant justice for even the most petty of crimes. Citizens make ends meet how they can, working enough jobs to ensure they get cheap food and entertainment. Mara Hinzig gets a lot more than she bargains for when she signs up for a gig which will allow her to be paid while she undergoes a few months of sleep in a programme called LINK, run by Ahe+d, and overseen by the mysterious Klaus Koje.
Mara wakes up next to a dead body. She’s got blood on her hands and she has no idea what happened. She runs for it and ends up at the door of her ex-partner Jema. The only problem is, the body Mara how inhabits isn’t her own. Not only is she wanted for a murder she doesn’t remember committing, but she now has a face she doesn’t recognise and a voice inside her head is giving her instructions and at times taking control over her body. This is not a good time to be Mara. When tragedy ensues, Mara is driven literally underground, where she meets a cohort of individuals who either want to kill her, turn her over to the authorities for a reward. Price creates a beautifully realised subterranean world with characters that are unique and off-the-wall crazy. I loved Mantis and Prestone, both augmented and damaged human beings, victims of circumstance and hubris. With their help, Mara is led to another part of Germany where the mythical Vanguard await. There she finds a group of people, mainly women, who live off-grid, and with the aid of the Abbot, the group’s leader, she tries to understand what’s happening to her and how she can get revenge on Koje. Her right-hand man is Daniel Van Morden, a veteran with a secret of his own. Along with Abbadine, Xi Yang, and Theo, Mara plots a way to get back control of her life and identity.
Reality Testing is a fast-paced and action-packed novel that I raced through in a couple of sittings. It brought back memories of Total Recall, Minority Report, and Blade Runner. The aesthetics are similar but Price tells his own story. This is a world that is terrifying, where life has little value, and where the stakes are so high, it’s obvious that not everyone is going to come through unscathed. I especially enjoyed the author’s depiction of a society where, despite everything else going on, people are allowed to be whatever they prefer to be: gender is fluid, and non-binary characters are front and centre of this fascinating future. Grant Price makes us think about how the next step in human evolution might look, and we wonder whether or not it would be best for the planet and ourselves if we just die off as a species and let the Earth start again. There are no easy answers, but there are plenty of adventures to have in the meantime.