A bracing blast of neo-cyberpunk with some smart tweaks to the operating system.
In a future Germany of wet-wired hackers and tech-enhanced para-humans, a woman awakens from an induced sleep to find her personality transplanted into another body—and, worse, that she’s accused of murder.Dubbed “ecopunk” by Price, this SF thriller takes place in a blighted future Germany following mass extinctions and water shortages. While healing the planet’s shattered climate is supposedly an overwhelming priority, to desperate, ordinary Berliners, such as Mara Kinzig, the carbon obsession has become weaponry by which the Big Five corporate entities and their minions dominate and oppress. For women, things have grown worse after medical mad-science made a breakthrough with the “Seahorse programme,” enabling men to conceive and deliver genetically flawless offspring in well under nine months—meaning less fuss and less wasted carbon. Unemployed and derided as an “obsol,” Mara submits to an exploitive “dreamtech” process meant to mine and sell brain waves while she sleeps. But she wakes beside the incriminating corpse of a man from the powerful executive business caste. Worse, the body in which Mara awakens is not her own—courtesy of a full neural-personality transplant technique available only to the most elite. An instant fugitive from deadly law enforcement automatons who want her for murder, Mara (or whoever she is now) seeks sanctuary and hunts for answers among the rebels and underground-resistance misfits who trust neither her story nor her scrambled identity. Readers will find an instant echo of the invigorating cyberpunk territory famously birthed by visionary SF author William Gibson—and, not long after, written off by the novelist himself as a genre past its expiration date. But Price reboots the familiar noir scenarios of greedy multinationals, hero hackers, and freakishly augmented adventurers, upgrading the software with piquant bytes of green politics run amok and the unholy intersections of capitalism, recession, and transhumanism. The prose is bullet-point sharp and rich in future-speak street argot (“Lightwalls are feeding them all kinds of ads for biomed and dreamtech schemes. Carbon out your eyes if you survive the biomed ones”). If the author does not reach Margaret Atwood’s high level in envisioning a nightmare technocracy seemingly eradicating the female gender on a claim that it’s good for the environment, that stinger in the cyber-scorpion’s tail still makes for just one more piece of fitting bad news in Price’s well-conceived dystopia.
Berlin. Some point in the dismal future. It’s not fully Blade Runner territory, but it’s not far off either. Climate change had gone a long way to destroying the world, and then the green revolution kicked off and made things even worse for the majority of people. Berlin, specifically Potsdamer Platz, was where the revolution had begun and where the Climate Preservation Act had the greatest impact. It was also the place where Mara Kinzig had been subsisting among the other down-and-outs who did not conform to the growers’ new way of life. That is until she made the mistake of engaging with a dreamtech and agreed to spend five months dreaming in a tank in exchange for carbon credits.
Grant Price’s rip-roaring cyberpunk novel Reality Testing opens with Mara waking from her tech-induced sleep, only to find she’s not in the tank anymore. Disorientated and off-kilter, she finds herself in an unfamiliar MR chamber, and what’s more, she’s not alone: there’s a dead man in there with her. She hightails it out of the place as fast as her weary legs (and the dead man’s stolen carbon) will take her and heads back to her former home in the Zossen district. Once there, Mara discovers that a lot has changed during the months she has been asleep, including her body, her tech implants, and the voice inside her head. Now she has to figure out who did this to her and why, as well as whether there’s any chance that she’ll be able to get back to normal.
The worldbuilding that has gone into Reality Testing is truly impressive. Price has clearly spent a great deal of time working on the various settings and crafting new vocabulary that is suitable for daily life in the dystopian near-future. The wealth of bespoke words and phrases that pepper the opening chapters might initially prove a little distracting, but as the story gathers pace, they merge with the more day-to-day language and add to the atmosphere of Mara’s world. The level of detail associated with the various new pieces of technology that Price has invented, both for Mara and for those she encounters, is also very impressive. It’s definitely science fiction, but it’s frighteningly plausible.
The world has become a garish, dangerous, and deeply unequal place (it feels like Judge Dredd could rock up at any moment), and Mara Kinzig is exactly the kind of tough character who is capable of surviving in such a place. She’s gone through an unspeakable ordeal that she can’t fully comprehend, but she pulls no punches in her quest to discover the truth and return to her old self. It’s just as well that she’s a real tough nut, as there is danger everywhere and very few of the people she encounters can be trusted. She is lucky enough to find some allies though, and they prove to be equally well-developed characters. Reality Testing is apparently the first book in a planned series and it’ll be interesting to see what Price has in store for Mara and her confederates next.