Shadowhawk reviews the first Richards and Klein novel by Guy Haley, Reality 36, a deep and thoughtful novel that is rare in science-fiction, at least in my experience.
“If ever I get tired of reading about cyborgs and androids in SF, then it will be Guy Haley’s first Richards and Klein novel that I turn to get a refreshing perspective on things.” ~The Founding Fields
Since being exposed to Angry Robot Books in December last year, it has been quite a wild ride. Whether it is Adam Christopher’s Empire State, Anne Lyle’s Alchemist of Souls or Matt Forbeck’s Carpathia, I have been surprised and entertained in equal measure by how different these novels are from others in their genres. At least the ones I have read at any rate. So that was my expectation heading into Guy Haley’s first Richards and Klein novel, Reality 36: that I would be knocked off my socks and treated to an experience as if I was riding a wild, uncontrollable lion. Not an idle metaphor, I assure you, because that has pretty much been the experience from the other three novels. Plus, I do like that cover art a fair bit.
Reality 36 is very different to the usual science-fiction novels I read, in that it is set in the near future and deals heavily, very heavily, with cyborgs and androids and an extremely novel use of the internet of the future. Coming off as someone who usually reads Warhammer 40,000 or Star Wars novels for his SF fix, that is something of a shock to the system. The novelty was quite welcome however, because that is indeed my goal for this year’s reading: to read a variety of novels in styles and themes and content across genres. Reality 36 fits very nicely into that.
I have to confess though, the opening chapters are somewhat dense to read. Several different character perspectives are thrown at us in quick succession, all of them set in different places, and together, they really disoriented me. I came quite close to giving up on the novel but I persevered for two reasons: I had specifically requested a review copy of the novel in preparation for its sequel coming out next month, Omega Point, and because I took it on as a challenge. If I give up on novels so easily then what is use in reading anything?
So yeah, I stuck with the novel all through the end, and I’m glad I did so.
Reality 36 is indeed quite a decent novel because of its specific novelty: it has a very different take on the near future, one that is peppered throughout with androids of varying intelligence (some like Star Trek’s Data and some like Star Wars’ R2D2), as well as highly competent cyborgs, vast power blocs run in part by these androids, and an internet that is very much a second reality in and of itself, called the Grid. Confused somewhat? Trust me, I was too. Intrigued? I was too.
I wanted to understand how all this came together and where the narrative was heading. Now, at its core, Reality 36, is a typical detective novel and a murder mystery, one that takes place across continents and realities. To describe it as a Sherlock Holmes/Dr. Watson novel of the future, as Angry Robot describes it on their site, is definitely not far off the mark. Its just that Sherlock in this case is a highly intelligent, sentimental and self-aware android who can jack into the Grid at will and flit between various bodies and android-ish constructs, while Dr. Watson is a somewhat depressed but highly competent cyborg who has served his time in the future equivalent of Black Ops forces.
The novel gets better as the narrative progresses, although it does still flounder at times, making the novel something of a difficult read. So the pacing is definitely off. I hesitate to comment on the novel’s nature as a debut novel in a negative light because I’ve read plenty of novels from long-established authors who go through this as well. So its not something that should take away from the novel. What matters is that I enjoyed the novel despite its shortcomings because those shortcomings are not enough to eclipse all of its good aspects.
The first of those is the characterisation. Guy’s androids pack a big dose of humour, whether it is the easy and indulgent variety from Richards, the near fanatical variety of Lincolnshire Flats (yes, there is an AI in the novel of that name), or the somewhat impersonal and irritated variety of Hughie, also known as EuPol Five. The speech mannerisms of this trio are some of the most entertaining aspects of the novel and make it a worthy read for that reason alone. I found myself chuckling quite a bit when reading their dialogue and, as I remarked to Guy earlier, I wanted to quite punch Lincolnshire Flats in the guts at times. Not that he has guts mind you, more of like a medical carriage of sorts. He’s an AI coroner if that helps (don’t ask).
Guy’s world-building, if somewhat dispersed and slow to come together, is also quite good. He paints a really vivid picture of the near future, acknowledging the onset of several natural and man-made disasters alike, along with interesting commentaries on social and cultural differences in that near future. Plus, his world breathes like a living thing, it feels real and immediate in a way that really makes you connect with it and stick around to see all of it unfold chapter-by-chapter. I’m definitely very keen on exploring this near-future in more detail.
With all of that, two of the central themes of the novel are the eternal conflicts of science fiction at large: can man and machine co-exist together, and how different is a self-aware machine from man? There are no hard and fast answers in Reality 36, which is probably for the best since these two questions fuel the entirety of the narrative and the mystery that Richards and Otto Klein are solving: the murder of a prominent scientist who supports equal rights for machines. That’s a bit of a simplistic summary on my part but rest assured that Guy explores these concepts with nuance and subtlety and straightforwardness in equal measure. If you pick up the novel for that reason alone then you most certainly will not be disappointed.
The aforementioned androids are not the only prominent characters in the novel however. Otto Klein is the second half of the detective agency Richards and Klein Investigation and while his backstory and his character are not explored in as great a detail as that of his partner, he does make his presence felt. Plus, he is a soldier-turned-cyborg. That’s cool. Like seriously cool. Veronique Valdaire, the dead scientist’s assistant of sorts is another. As a software specialist who has served her time in the military and now conducts research into artificial intelligence and their development, she is fairly interesting. She doesn’t really get to shine much in the novel but she acts as a springboard for events right from the start and a significant part of the narrative is as much about her as the hunt for the mysterious death of her superior. She is not a single entity in the novel however, she is paired with a somewhat self-aware phone that acts as much as her friend, her sister, and her biggest critic: Chloe. She definitely is quite the amusing character that I would love to see more of.
The big bad villain of the novel, well to talk more of him would be spoilering the novel, so I’ll just say that you won’t see it coming. Not unless you actually live in this near future that Guy Haley is created. It is somewhat of a masterstroke that is kept from being a cliche and being predictable because of the other novelty of Reality 36: the 36 different RealWorld Reality Realms.
I’m not sure if I quite have the hang of these worlds that exist only in the Grid, or a simulacrum of it, but they are certainly quite unique. They are virtual realities populated by self-aware artificial constructs, many of which owe their origins to mythology, history, or to toys of all things. These 36 virtual realities make for an interesting playground for the characters. As you may have guessed by now, a fair amount of the action in the novel takes place in the titular Reality 36, which is at the heart of all the weirdness that Richards and Otto have been investigated across the globe.
All in all, a good first novel that does make me want to pick up the sequel (I’m actually reading it currently and so far its better than its predecessor). That may also have to do with the fact that the novel ends on a very clear-cut cliffhanger, which means that you have to read the sequel to get full closure. That’s not necessarily a bad thing although I don’t enjoy that sort of endings. They make me wince just a little bit. Still, I do recommend the novel.
Considering everything, I rate the novel at a comfortable 7.5/10. Will post my thoughts on the sequel, Omega Point, as soon as I’m done with it.
For more Guy Haley goodness, check out Bane of Kings’ review of Reality 36 here.