Sent to me by Gollancz in exchange for an honest review.
Release Date: 24/08/17
Format: Hardback, 240pp
Summed up in a word: Puzzling
I am on a constant mission to find my defining science-fiction author and Adam Roberts is definitely in the running for top dog. The Real-Town Murder is the third book of Roberts’ that I have reviewed and it is by far my favourite. SF is a tricky genre for me, I prefer it when an author takes a few elements and fleshes them out into a brilliant story. It turns me away when a writer is throwing in concepts and ideas left and right. The Real-Town Murders is a brilliant science-fiction locked room mystery that should certainly be high up on all your reading lists this summer. Full review below.
An impossible murder. A ticking deadline. A political coup. A Hitchcockian thriller set in a chilling near future.
Alma is a private detective in a near-future England, a country desperately trying to tempt people away from the delights of Shine, the immersive successor to the internet. But most people are happy to spend their lives plugged in, and the country is decaying.
Alma’s partner is ill, and has to be treated without fail every 4 hours, a task that only Alma can do. If she misses the 5 minute window her lover will die. She is one of the few not to access the Shine.
So when Alma is called to an automated car factory to be shown an impossible death and finds herself caught up in a political coup, she knows that getting too deep may leave her unable to get home.
What follows is a fast-paced Hitchcockian thriller as Alma evades arrest, digs into the conspiracy, and tries to work out how on earth a dead body appeared in the boot of a freshly-made car in a fully-automated factory.
The Real-Town Murders is thrilling and high stakes science-fiction story centred around an impossible death and a governmental conspiracy. Taking place in a near-future in a world that is dominated by a new, immersive experience called Shine. Shine is the next level virtual reality simulator and it is a vast improvement on the depressing realities of real life. Almost everything goes through the Shine and the real-world is left to automated machines and artificial intelligence. There are people who stay logged out of the Shine for personal or medical reasons. Alma is one of these individuals, a private detective who avoids the shine at all costs due to her necessity to stay present in the real world.
Alma’s life is certainly hectic. Working as a P.I as well as being a full time carer to her partner Marguerite, Alma is stretched thin. Due to a gene-hacked cancer (more on that later) eating away at Rita, Alma has to tend to her every four hours otherwise she will die. Alma is getting by putting food and medicine on the table, but when the case centred around an impossible death drops onto her desk, life becomes a whole lot more chaotic. It is a cracking case! A man has been found dead in the boot of a car that was freshly built in an automated factory. There is CCTV at every stage of construction and a highly intelligent A.I. governs the system of machines making sure no anomalies occur. The only human involvement is a quality assurance check at the end. No one can figure out how the body made it into a vehicle that hadn’t been built yet. (It is a brilliant mystery, it automatically made me read till the end just to find out how it happened).
Before Alma can really look into the death, she is paid off to leave the case. Confused but relieved, Alma carries on with her life (with the case in the back of her mind). All is well until a key member of the investigation is killed and Alma is put up as the key suspect. The police want to arrest her, take her from her home and separate her from Rita to put pressure on her. But nothing will stand in the way of Alma looking after Rita. Nothing! A higher power is throwing everything they have at Alma to stop her from finding out the truth, but all Alma wants to do is protect Rita. She will need to figure out the truth, no matter what it takes, to get them to back off. I loved the dedication that Alma showed Rita, it is really inspiring. There was a lot to appreciate about this novel. From the fascinating plot and all its moving parts, Roberts’ thought-provoking and brilliant science-fiction writing to Alma and Rita’s relationship and all the interesting ideas that Roberts fleshed out within the story.
I really appreciated Roberts’ writing. He is mainly a science-fiction author but he understands the modern world and uses it in his writing. This novel is set in a near (and possible) future. Society has disintegrated and social interaction and real-world presences are rare/limited. You can already see parts of our modern day life veering towards that eventuality, I know it is unlikely but the element of possibility was intriguing enough to keep me reading. I love experiencing the many different versions of our future that are being written by modern authors but Roberts’ may just be my favourite.
The themes included are deeper than you might usually see in a sci-fi story. Love, dedication and passion are key to this story. But don’t be alarmed if you aren’t into those sorts of themes, there is plenty of arse-kicking action, humour and scientific technicality to go around too. The main effect that I believe Roberts was going for is thought-provoking and classically human (and it worked really well). It was also interesting to have a plot that included VR that didn’t utilise it, but viewed it from a perspective that was down-to-earth and honest. The Shine plays a part in the narrative but the real world is the main focus. Alma is rooted in reality, and between investigations she is looking after her partner.
Rita’s situation is brutal but incredibly fascinating (and scary…). Her DNA was hacked by an outside source while she was in the Shine. The hacker left her with a malicious infection coded into her DNA that has left her with a fatal condition that eats away at her brain and body. The hacker was smart and coded it so that only Alma can deliver Rita help… in the four minute window that she has to save the love of her life… This cycle repeats every four hours, designed to make their lives into a literal hell. It is a another sub-plot that brings the whole narrative together. This situation is genius and it adds plenty to the dynamic of the story. I really enjoyed Alma and Rita’s relationship (the nicer parts anyway). They have a great chemistry and I thought the Sherlockian influences on their investigation skills was a nice touch. Rita’s mind is still sharp, even after all she has been through, and she may be key in revealing what really happened at the factory.
I highly recommend this book to all kinds of readers. It has so much to offer in its 230 pages. So much story, action, mystery and science packed into short novel that I hope is going to made into a series… please? Of course the book is not perfect. I had a few issues with dialogue which was a bit irritating or slow. I found that, though the book was at times fast paced and high stakes, the general pace was quite languid. It took me quite a while to get through this because Roberts packs every page of the novel tightly. It is certainly a novel you have to keep a close eye on. But that is all quite forgivable in the bigger picture of what this novel is trying to achieve. I think The Real-Town Murders was a success. It has heart, action, relevance and brilliance. I just hope that Adam Roberts decides that this is a story that needs more adding to it.
About Adam Roberts
Adam Roberts is commonly described as one of the UK’s most important writers of SF. He is the author of numerous novels and literary parodies. He is Professor of 19th Century Literature at Royal Holloway, London University and has written a number of critical works on both SF and 19th Century poetry. He is a contributor to the SF ENCYCLOPEDIA.