Synthetic realities. Corporate governance. Enslaved artificial life. We’ve been here before many, many times – an author has to contribute something pretty damn good to be noticed whilst navigating these crowded themes. Matthew Mathers has a strong technical background in computer science, but does he have the ability to make The Complete Atopia Chronicles stand out?
“The rich came here and to other places like this, while the rest of humanity watched us needily and greedily.”
-The Complete Atopia Chronicles
I have to say, I began this book with some trepidation – despite my near-sexual fixation with literature, I don’t tend to go for long books. Perhaps it’s some latent Generation-Y-attention-span-disorder, or maybe it’s that overly long books are often terrible, or perhaps it’s even a fear of overloading my Kindle in the same way I filled my iPod with the endless shitty music I ‘bought’ as a teenager. Regardless, at over 500 pages The Complete Atopia Chronicles set off alarm bells.
The novel’s opening didn’t help. The dislikeable narrator drowns herself in clumsy exposition on the streets of a world which will seem altogether clichéd to fans of the cyberpunk genre. Thankfully things quickly improve – Atopia is comprised of a series of interlocking short stores, each told from the perspective of a different character. Now the first few characters fill the standard sci-fi roles: the advertising executive, the general, the media mogul – but as the novel progresses they grow a little more interesting. Having said that, it is through its ideas, not characters, that the book will grip you in its wordy talons.
Set on the corporate-owned artificial island of Atopia, a ‘shining beacon of libertarian ideals’, the technology adapted reflects the chaotic, hyper-capitalist setting. The first use we see of the virtual-world-type-technology (Mathers replaces such outdated 90s terminology with ‘pssi’) is to visually remove all the adverts – and then homeless people – from the streets of Manhattan. Each individual can live in their own little world, customised and filtered to their exact specifications – and to share your reality with another is a deep emotional commitment.
Mathers later takes this technology to its logical Neoliberal conclusions – virtual play areas for paedophiles, torture rooms, ‘reality suicides’, death flashmobs, and even disposable children. The novel gets dark – deliciously dark – and at times Atopia is genuinely chilling. There’s a strong temptation to talk more about some of the novel’s creepier aspects, but Mather’s work contains so many sinister twists that I’m facing a minefield of spoilers. What I can safely say is that though each story seems to present us with a well-trodden theme, the author manages to create some new and awful outcome for each one – and the conclusions will stick with you, however hard you try to shake them off. If this book doesn’t make you want to bury your smart phone and live amongst the Amish, nothing will.
This isn’t to suggest that Atopia presents us with a clumsy, heavy-handed warning on the use of reality-altering technology – the novel’s morality is far greyer than that. The ethical issues raised are nuanced to the point that it is often genuinely impossible to work out what would be the right thing to do, and the villain of the piece isn’t obvious until the very end. Unlike a lot of sci-fi dealing the artificial reality, the lack of a single, simplistic message brings the world – from its vertical farms to its crimelord penthouses – into three full dimensions.
“So he chooses to spend his days with reality skinned up so everyone looks like Elvis and global warming never happened.”
-The Complete Atopia Chronicles
The novel is not without its problems – problems which plague the genre as a whole. The dialogue between characters is often stilted, more reflecting the way Hollywood executives think humans talk than the way they actually do; the romantic relationships we’re presented with are a little dull and overly cutesy (even if they do have some interesting enhancements from the pssi technology); and the book is a little longer than it really needs to be. Having said that, I didn’t care – I was too busy reading on to see what horrible surprise Mathers had conjured next. The novel is open-ended, leaving the reader more than ready for the next instalment – one I’ll certainly be ordering upon its release.
4/5 – Matthew Mather’s strengths lie in his background as a computer scientist, and it is via the potential ramifications of well-worn sci-fi technologies that the novel really excels: from losing your own body to compositing with loved ones to live as a single entity. None of it will leave you with a clear moral stance, but you certainly won’t be pre-ordering Google Goggles any time soon.