Dystopian vision of a future Earth almost wholly engulfed by environmental catastrophe.
New Zealand author Beckett’s slim first novel is a curious mix of science fiction, Platonic dialogue and An Inconvenient Truth. The story is framed around the four-hour oral examination of Anaximander (aka Anax), a female student who hopes to enter the Academy, home to the elite of what is now a rigidly stratified society. By the 2050s, we learn early on, the planet was overwhelmed by war, terrorism and global dust storms, prompting an entrepreneur named Plato to create an island haven in the Southern Hemisphere protected by a Great Sea Fence. Interlopers attempting to enter were killed on sight for fear of an invading plague, and Anax’s exam focuses on a case of a crack in the system. Adam Forde was a soldier who in 2075 spotted a girl in a boat approaching the barrier and held his fire. Beckett relates this back story in question-and-answer format, with Anax responding to her three examiners. He avoids the danger of an overly talky narrative, however, by incorporating movielike holograms into Anax’s examination, which work to illustrate key moments in Forde’s life. This enables the author to add some descriptive passages to ease the rigors of the novel’s more philosophical second half, focusing on the interactions between the imprisoned Forde and Art, a robot empowered with high-end artificial-intelligence technology. Art is so empowered, in fact, that he’s a little smug about it—he routinely argues for his superiority over mortal, emotional humans. The book is clearly making a statement about the consequences of environmental neglect. Indeed, Beckett is stronger with philosophical fare than with plotting—the book’s final twist is old hat. But he’s earned the right to deploy a pulp-sci-fi cliché or two—his conception of a broken world and the role technology plays in it is convincing.
A cannily constructed portrait of a global worst-case scenario.