Houghton (Songs of Seraphina, 2015) explores the difference between living and surviving in this sci-fi thriller.
In the wake of a global climate catastrophe, a new world government re-establishes order as a single nation called the Autonomy. However, this order comes at a price, as the majority of the world’s citizens are simply considered “unit[s] of production.” Workers toil endlessly to create iNet glasses, devices that allow even the lowliest grunt to escape their lives through virtual-reality simulations. The glasses also provide access to the “Faith,” a religion that promises “points” toward salvation in exchange for worldly suffering. Rebellions rise in opposition to the government’s ever tightening control, and many citizens find themselves willing or unwilling participants in the deadly conflict. Pasco Eborgersen, a gambler with ties to the highest level of government, and Balmoral Murraine, an iNet savant from one of the poorest Sectors of the Autonomy, become unlikely allies. They learn secrets that could either save their world or destroy it and that there are people in power who would kill to see that information buried. Although the timeline of Houghton’s novel is somewhat unrealistic—the world goes from utter collapse to an Orwellian government to a rebellion within a span of roughly 30 years—the future society that the author creates is compelling. He gives ample attention to details of the new world’s structure, such as the jellyfish-and-insect-based “skaatch” that serves as the main food product and the commodified social order in which children are named by corporations. The Autonomy exists as a heightened version of the current First World/Third World system, strikingly juxtaposing the ravages of Sector 2 and 3 against the plump privilege of Sector 1. The concept of a gamified religion taps into a cultural obsession with instant gratification and validation while also emphasizing the performative nature of faith. However, Houghton’s attention to detail doesn’t overshadow the novel’s emotional resonance.
An immersive novel that chillingly predicts a world in which life is something to be escaped rather than experienced.