The best read of the summer is about artificial intelligence, surveillance and tiny aliens

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rookie police officer An officer assigned to monitor a group of refugees is trying to find out if the refugees have been accused of terrorism and where the real killers are hiding.. Formally, this is an accurate description of the plot of David Musgrave’s debut novel. lambda. Sounds like a pretty simple hack, right? But from the first page lambda conceived something weirder and more cumbersome, abandoning the linear narrative and taking the story to Britain from an alternate universe where you can get in trouble with the cops for damaging the talking toothbrush.

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AT lambdaIn the bizarre world of 2019, such advances have been made in the field of artificial intelligence that “sentient objects” have been granted rights, including said toothbrush, also known as ToothFriendIV. Meanwhile, the police are testing an artificial intelligence system that both frames someone for a crime and kills them, although the government prefers to call it mitigation, neutralization, deactivationor agency closure. It may sound like a pastiche of Philip K. Dick, but Musgrave’s debut is more ambitious than the imagery he borrows, turning it into original, gripping literary science fiction.

lambda follows a police officer named Cara Gray as she is all too familiar with the official murder jargon. She joins the force after abruptly changing her life as a left-wing commune activist to detective work, and then becomes involved in a shady government program linked to a rogue cybercriminal haven in the desert called the Republic of Severax. Her personal life is just as confusing as her professional problems. She dates a misanthropic coder named Peter, who is obsessed with two things, neither of which is hers: a talking toothbrush and Severax. (Musgrave sets off a fine portrait of a certain kind of tech scumbag with Peter, whose main character trait is to interrupt documentaries to add his two cents.)

Kara isn’t a futuristic Colombo – she’s surprisingly, pathetically bad at her job. After her first assignment as a police officer fails, she is switched to a project to monitor the lambdas, a population of approximately 100,000 mysterious people who are genetically human but have evolved to be diminutive and semi-aquatic, with tails instead of legs and an incomprehensible social structure. By the time she hit that bit, there had already been a wide-ranging institutional effort to integrate these lambda expressions into society. We learn that they began to arrive off the coast of Iceland and the UK a few years earlier, with only a vague idea of ​​how they got there. They know they’ve come from somewhere and that they’ve had to dodge hungry Greenland sharks on their journey; some of them speak vaguely of their parents, known only as “the four fertile couples”.

In the years since they started showing up, lambdas have gained a status similar to refugees, with the help of the government helping them get around, find housing and work. But anti-lambda sentiment continues to grow as Kara gets to know the beleaguered population, who live in deliberately flooded basement apartments and refer to each other as “brothers” and “sisters”. They are often attacked on their way to low-paying service jobs, and many of them become skittish. Kara bonds with an eccentric and friendly lambda named Gavin, who desperately wants to know more about his parents and whose fear of being killed by angry, xenophobic “down to earth” vigilantes grows stronger by the day. Although her supervisor expressly forbids it, Kara agrees to contact an Icelandic researcher who can help Gavin discover his underwater roots.

It’s a big plot, and Musgrave’s stylistic choices are as Byzantine as his narratives. The use of alien figures as an allegory for an oppressed population isn’t exactly groundbreaking – it probably makes up about half of science fiction – but the writing itself is crisp, bold, and proudly weird. The passages following Kara’s journey from activist to cop and almost back are interrupted by commercial break-style pages informing the reader where we are with our “EyeNarrator Pro Free Trial.” (These snippets smell strongly of George Saunders stories.) EyeNarrator’s opening paragraph indicates that the story we’re reading is software-generated prose, and Musgrave alludes to this not-quite-human narrative through an apparently odd choice of language. . The blood pressure levels of the characters are mentioned, and the movements are described in strange technical language: “Carolyn turned 12 degrees counterclockwise,” one sentence says. Another: “Saccades of Kara’s eyes saw the highly reflective brown iris of a woman.” This book may have set the world record for the use of the word saccade, which comes up with surprising frequency considering no one ever says it.

There are also a number of monologues – the book opens and closes with them, and they are scattered all over the place – from a mysterious character named “Mr. King”. Hello.” These stilted, melancholic monologues describe Mr. Hello’s unconventional upbringing and lonely lifestyle and are reminiscent of interview scenes with the host in Western worldwhen naive robots chirp nonchalantly about truths they don’t have access to. In fact, tonally lambda has much in common with Western world, good and bad – a bit too much, smart, sometimes heavy, and sometimes completely derailed. The main disappointment lambda is its ending, which lacks the satisfying conclusion of a true Grade A crime yarn. Instead, it leaves many unfinished endings – a whole series of missed plot points.

However, where he fails to solve his secrets effectively, lambda impresses with its ingenuity and ability to create mood. I just read it last week for the first time, but I almost don’t remember the ending. But Musgrave’s evocative images of the offworld will linger.

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