After finishing Elizabeth Hand’s Available Dark, I looked around the review pile for something vaguely similar by way of a mystery or detective story.
And so I wound up with this. It’s relatively recent release though my notes don’t tell me when I got it from the author or how. I think it was through LibraryThing.
The production values are decent for a self-published effort.
Review: The London Project, Mark J. Maxwell, 2014.
The old Max Headroom tv show used to say it was set five minutes into the future.
This story feels like it’s set two-and-a-half minutes into a future London.
It’s the sort of surveillance state we are building for ourselves. In exchange for information and convenience and lots of free high tech including flat, rollup computers that even provide tactile virtual reality, Londoners let themselves be surveilled for the benefit of private marketers and government security agencies – all subject to bureaucratic oversight of course. It’s all courtesy of the Portal Corporation
So how did a dead girl end up on a subway track in a city where almost every square meter is under observation?
That’s the central mystery heroine Detective Sergeant Louisa Bennett must solve.
The twists and turns the book’s plot will take often are predictable.
Does Louisa’s divorce cause problems? Will her children be endangered by her investigations? Will her partner survive to the end of the story? Is her old boss, now in Portal security, a friend or foe? Will the two cases Louisa is investigating end up being linked? Who is the mysterious entity behind the breaches in Portal’s data security.
I was hoping for some local color, a nostalgic return to a city I haven’t visited in years. But there was little of that outside of the opening in Soho and deserted London zone one of the founders of Portal hangs out in. Little more than names of streets and neighborhoods is given.
The villain’s motives are kind of confused and, frankly, unbelievable.
But there’s stuff to like too.
Maxwell is very good with describing plausible technology. I’m not sure if he has any original technological speculations, but his combination seems novel – particularly the idea that many of the citizens of London, thanks to retinal implants that can record visuals, act like bloggers and videographers desperate for an online audience in order to gain access to more Portal goodies.
Maxwell seriously considers not just the usual privacy concerns but some of the social consequences of his technology – even if some of the conversations Louisa has about Portal’s effect on society, for good and ill, are too blocky and come off as more debating society discussions than extemporaneous conversation.
I particularly like the mocking of the techno-utopian dreams of one of Portal’s founders.
Maxwell is also good about capturing the mindset of government agencies, especially using performance metrics supposedly there to better service to evade hard work.
And not all the plot twists are predictable.
It’s a decent first novel. I’m not sure I would read any more possible stories set in this world, but I may consider future Maxwell efforts.
Quick Additional Thoughts, Criticisms, and Observations (with Spoilers)
Some seeming technological slips. We are told London Tactical Support Squad aims for the chest since that is the thickest body part and lessens the chance for the bullet to go through a body and hit bystanders. Have they not heard of frangible ammo? Also, Louisa, at one point, passes through the magnetic doorway of paranoid Portal co-founder Kenneth Barry. It’s designed to fry any electronics on a person. Do London’s future police carry nothing magnetic?
Those are minor slips. Otherwise Maxwell is very realistic in his technology.
Kenneth Barry’s failed utopian dream:
Portal’s nothing like what I envisioned. I wanted a completely open system. No access restrictions to any of the content. Think about it— there’d be no need for secret government departments monitoring your every move. Why should they? Everything you do or say would be publicly available. The more people share, the more they become aware of how their fellow citizens think and the better they come to understand one another. Now, I know what you’re going to say— what about the great separators— race, religion, politics, sexuality, blah, blah, blah.’ He stared at her intently. ‘Those are concepts forced onto us by society. We aren’t born divided. Division is instilled into our minds from birth, whether it comes from your family, your peers, or your education. From the football team you support to the neighbourhood you live in. Even the brand of clothes you wear. It all contributes to a culture of division. The London Project was supposed to be a panacea for all that bullshit.’
‘You thought Portal would change the way everyone thinks?’
Some of Louisa’s skepticism must have leaked through because Ken bristled. ‘Not everyone. As you get older your prejudices become immutable, hard-wired into your subconscious. We were after the young, the teenagers and pre-teens. Kids don’t think or behave like us— they desperately want to belong to something. By melding their thoughts and aspirations with those of their peers they would inevitably come together to form a singular collective, the catalyst for the communion being the London Project itself.’ Ken gesticulated agitatedly. ‘It was supposed to be a grand reawakening of everything good in the human spirit.’
I will simply note we have reference to Latvian gangsters but no mention of London’s most absimilating immigrants.
Unbelievable villain motives: he records the sensations of torture victims to experience them. This is called sadism. As far as I know, sadists like watching other people’s pain, not experiencing it.