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:  


Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Dialogues - Clifford Johnson ***

The authors of science books are always trying to find new ways to get the message across to their audiences. In Dialogues, Clifford Johnson combines a very modern technique - the graphic novel or comic strip - with an approach that goes back to Ancient Greece - using a dialogue to add life to what might seem a dry message.

We have seen the comic strip approach trying to put across quite detailed science before in Mysteries of the Quantum Universe. As with that book, Dialogues manages to cover a fair amount of actual physics, but I still feel that the medium just wastes vast acres of page to say very little at all. This is brought home here because quite a lot of the sections of Dialogues start with several pages with no text on at all, just setting up the scenario.

As for using a discussion between two people to put a message across, Johnson makes the point that, for instance, Galileo's very readable masterpiece Two New Sciences is in the form of a dialogue (more accurately a discu…

On the Moor - Richard Carter ****

There's much to enjoy in Richard Carter's pean to the frugal yet visceral delights of being one with England's Pennine moorland. If this were all there were to the book it would have made a good nature read, but Carter cleverly weaves in science at every opportunity, whether it's inspired by direct observations of birds and animals and plants - I confess I was ignorant of the peregrine falcon's 200 mile per hour dive - or spinning off from a trig point onto the geometric methods of surveying through history all the way up to GPS.

Carter is something of an expert on Darwin, and inevitably the great man comes into the story many times - yet his appearance never seems forced. It's hard to spend your time in a natural environment like this and not have Darwin repeatedly brought to mind.

I confess to a distinct love of these moors. Having spent my first 11 years in and around Littleborough, just the other side of Blackstone Edge from Carter's moor, the moorland…

Liam Drew - Four Way Interview

Liam Drew is a writer and former neurobiologist. he has a PhD in sensory biology from University College, London and spent 12 years researching schizophrenia, pain and the birth of new neurons in the adult mammalian brain. His writing has appeared in Nature, New Scientist, Slate and the Guardian. He lives in Kent with his wife and two daughters. His new book is I, Mammal.

Why science?

As hackneyed as it is to say, I think I owe my fascination with science to a great teacher – in my case, Ian West, my A-level biology teacher.  Before sixth form, I had a real passion for the elegance and logic of maths, from which a basic competence at science at school arose.  But I feel like I mainly enjoyed school science in the way a schoolkid enjoys being good at stuff, rather than it being a passion.

Ian was a revelation to me.  He was a stern and divisive character, but I loved the way he taught.  He began every lesson by providing us with a series of observations and fact, then, gradually, between …