Very little science fiction is about the future, except in the general sense that the present is heading there. When the genre takes its eyes from the sky and looks around, SF becomes a sub-genre of satire, using extrapolation to exaggerate the world around us. Two very different new novels deploy the tropes of science fiction to this effect, transporting us to vastly altered geopolitical landscapes - which turn out to be not so far off, after all.
The most blatantly satirical is Rupert Morgan's first novel, Let There Be Lite, set on a nearly identical planet to our own. There, society has evolved in parallel with ours, to the extent of containing many individuals and institutions similar to those we know. The book is set primarily in the United States of Atlantis; it follows the steady corruption of a presidential candidate (who could be any US aspirer-to-office of the past 10 years) and the machinations of a software zillionaire whose tip-off name is "John Lockes".
This is a novel at its best when taking pot-shots at a wide variety of modern ills - fast food, tabloid media, downsizing, soap-opera politics - and detouring into odd little essays, almost like humourous columns. There's an engaging sub-plot about a bank siege brokered by the son (or reincarnation) of the James Stewart character from It's a Wonderful Life.
However, the up-front plot about Lockes's plan for instituting a Utopia by making all information about everybody available on the internet is more strained. It lacks the detailed conviction and real bite that the late Richard Condon (author of The Manchurian Candidate) brought to similarly outlandish conspiracies.
One of Morgan's nicer inventions is a computer program that boils down complex texts to their essentials. Its treatment of the Old Testament renders it down to: "Because I say so, that's why."
redRobe, by Jon Courtenay Grimwood, is the latest in a loose series of sci-fi thrillers and might have been entirely written with such a computer device. While Morgan sometimes labours things, Grimwood packs every sentence with so much meaning that - after you've read through the thing at a speed mandated by the breathless pace of his conspiracy plot - you'll want to go back to find the neat or nasty little felicities embedded everywhere within it.
This also takes place in a world equivalent to our own. No date is given, but what feels like a near future may be an alternative present triggered by some monkeying with Napoleonic history (Mexico has an Emperor Maximillia). The macguffin here is the memory of just-murdered Pope Joan, recorded on ballbearings and perhaps passed on to a Japanese child prostitute bought outright by a ruthless priest. On the trail of the Pope/girl is Axl Borja: a mercenary and media star who is forced by the Vatican and/or agents of the emperor to go to a vast prayer wheel in space where the world's refugees are living without guns. Naturally, betrayals, revelations and atrocities ensue.
Grimwood gives good hard-boiled action and spaghetti western-style characters. But the point of the book is in the world glimpsed between the fights, with every single political or religious institution so caught up in self-interest that it has transformed into an evil cabal. Meanwhile, an assortment of variously corrupt but essentially blameless individuals do their best to stay alive in the crossfire.
It's a book, like Grimwood's earlier novels, that starts and ends with action. It jams you into and pulls you out of his world with bracing shocks. Sometimes, you might want a moment or two to breathe, but the effect is still dazzling, seductive and pointed.
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