Book review of The Destructives by Matthew de Abaitua

This review of The Destructives by Matthew de Abaitua was written in 2016 for the British Science Fiction Association‘s magazine, Vector.

Angry Robot, 2016, Paperback, 416pp, £8.99, ISBN 9780857664747

DestructivesIt’s 30-odd years from now and humanity is still recovering from the Seizure. This was the day of the almost-Singularity when artificial intelligence first appeared and overwrote every piece of stored data on the planet with a single short loop of video.

Things fell apart, millions died and the new-born artificial intelligences (who prefer the term “emergences”) fled to the sun. There, living in such a tight orbit that humans cannot touch them, the emergences have created their own University of the Sun and are trying to undo some of the damage wreaked by their birth, a large part of which is a ruthlessly enforced ban on the creation of further emergences.

Meanwhile, Theodore Drown lectures in “Intangibles” at the University of the Moon. Theodore has been accompanied since birth by the only emergence outside the University of the Sun, Dr Easy, a robot researching a single human life from beginning to end. He certainly chose an interesting one: Theodore is an unfussy addict and spoilt rich kid recovering from many narcotic fixations, one of which, the drug weirdcore, has left him with self-inflicted facial scars and permanently muted emotions.

Asked by a freelance executive to investigate a hidden data archive, Theodore finds himself inside a rare pre-Seizure virtual reality remnant that contains a strange secret connected to the onset of the Seizure itself. The archive, and the facility researching it, are stored deep underground on the far side of the Moon, safe from prying (emergent) eyes. Theodore narrowly escapes certain death, cracks the archive’s secret and marries the freelance executive. Then, when a more conventional story might have been congratulating itself on a job well done, the story really gets going: chasing emergences and dead scientists across the Solar System, stopping only to set up a marketing agency (the eponymous Destructives), get shot at, tortured and sucked into a biological emergence.

Despite their power and intelligence, the emergences are not omniscient gods, and their attempts to keep humanity safe following the disaster of the Seizure are flawed, resulting in a cultural stasis that isn’t helping anyone – least of all the emergences. There’s a sense of them as parents to humanity’s children: muddling through and putting a good face on things, but not quite certain what’s expected of them. For sure, anyone whose “best” includes setting up gigantic pseudo-shopping malls – “Asylum Malls” – to provide a safe and secure environment for traumatised survivors of the Seizure doesn’t necessarily understand what’s best for humanity.

The Destructives is stuffed to bursting with imagination and intelligence, served with a side order of wickedly cynical retrospection about life in the early 21st century. You’ll never look at a shopping mall in the same way again!

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