by Emma Newman
After Atlas proves that, yes indeed, Emma Newman can do cyberpunk. Good news: although it takes place in the same world as Newman's earlier novel, After Atlas can be read without Planetfall, and if the idea of a discussion of agency wrapped around a police procedural taking place in a world remade by gov-corps sounds appealing while an exploration of OCD on an alien planet does not, then I'd definitely recommend jumping straight ahead to After Atlas. You'll miss a certain amount of dramatic irony, but the worldbuilding and plot points should be entirely intelligible. The narrator of After Atlas is Carlos, a police inspector for the Noropean Ministry of Justice. Carlos is also an indentured slave with few rights and little hope of freedom. After "the transition from pseudo-democracy into neoliberty," the new gov-corps tried their hands at solving the issues of poverty and homelessness in the most economical way they could think of: "nonpersons" are scooped off the streets and locked into "hot-houses," where their brains are crammed with skills so they can be sold to the highest bidder.
Carlos is luckier than most, for the MoJ is a comparatively kindly master. He may not have the right to own property or be in a relationship or "cohabitate" or even take his own life, but he has one of the most advanced artificial personal assistants on the market and he truly loves solving problems. His newest case, however, takes him to a place he has no desire to explore: his own past, including the technology-shunning cult he grew up in and fled from. I thoroughly enjoyed the vivid, gritty cyberpunk world that Newman created. People wander the streets of London gesticulating to thin air as they engage in virtual conversations with friends hundreds of miles away; others use their APAs to play augmented reality games or watch an endless stream of advertisements. Except for the very wealthy, almost all food is made-to-order from food printers. Resources are scarce, attention even scarcer. In such a world, Carlos's questions about agency are all too apt. As he puts it,
"Everybody is on a leash. Some are more obvious than others."
Like its predecessor, After Atlas is a compelling story. Approached as a mystery, it is perhaps rather lacking, both in terms of twists and in an ultimately satisfactory explanation.(show spoiler)
The story shines most in its examination of agency and choice, particularly coming from the perspective of a character who has so little of either. As an elite inspector, Carlos is fully of the disparity between the privileged world he appears to be a part of and his actual state of disempowerment:
"It was the constant cognitive dissonance of being so desperate to get out yet too scared to leave. Of being so afraid to fail yet wishing I did so it would all stop. Of being told I was lucky when I was being abused. Of hearing I was a valuable asset when I was being treated like a fucking object."
I don't know what exactly Emma Newman does to make her books so addictive, but I do know that I'm thoroughly hooked. It's not just that I love the worldbuilding; there's something about her stories and her style that I find utterly beguiling. Whether the next book takes place on Earth or on the world of Planetfall, count me in.
~~I received this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Berkley Publishing Group, in exchange for my honest review. Quotes were taken from an advanced reader copy and while they may not reflect the final version, I believe they speak to the spirit of the novel as a whole.~~
Cross-posted on Goodreads.