(Note: this review is based on an Advance Reading Copy. The released edition may differ depending on final edits.)
One of the new Spring 2018 releases from Roseway Publishing (which is an imprint of Fernwood Publishing) is the “speculative” fiction/sci-fi thriller Insatiable Machine. Roseway kindly sent me an ARC to review in advance of its upcoming release. Speculative fiction relies less on the science part than on what the world may look like a number of years from now, not the next century and beyond. While no actual date is given in Insatiable Machine, it would appear that it is set in the not-too-distant future where a conglomeration (or alliance) of big business (the Big Six) controls almost everything, including the president of the United States. There are surveillance cameras everywhere, police drones, autonomous vehicles, and smart pens instead of smartphones. Does the concept of the smartpen sound familiar? How many of us have our digital lives on our phone? We do banking with them, pay for items with them, keep our credit card information stored on them, etc. This is the essence of speculative fiction; how far (right or wrong) could present technology take us?
From the first page of the Prologue, we can discern that something is definitely amiss in this future world (it is set in Washington D.C.). Curt Hutchison, a journalist, is being hunted by the police for he has learned a terrible secret that the Big Six and the U.S. government is trying to keep from its citizens: the mystery of the “contribution score” and how it is tabulated for each person. Later in the book, Curt (or Hudge, as he is commonly known as) explains to a group of people:
“What it is, in its most basic sense, is a number indicating the balance between what you contribute to the economy and what you take back from it. Over the last ten years, it has become increasingly less convenient to use cash as a method of payment, more and more of our transactions are carried out and recorded in cyberspace.” He reached into his pocket and produced his smart pen, waving it aloft. “This little device is now your transit card, credit card, medical history, resume, tax records, search history….and the list goes on. As more and more of this personal data gets stored in one place, more of it is superimposed upon your financial activity….they are assigning value to you as a human being. Value in the form of a single, two-digit number you are not allowed to know. What you are also not allowed to know is how this number is calculated.”
It is at this point the police conveniently arrive to shut down the meeting (they claim there’s a bomb in the building) before Hudge can speak out any more on the subject.
In the world of Insatiable Machine, almost everything is manufactured by 3D printing, another technology that has promising applications. However, this has led to automation and the loss of jobs for millions of workers. There is no middle class here. The poor live in the “Borders” an area outside Washington, D.C. where they are pretty much left to their own devices, sleeping in abandoned and derelict buildings, finding what work they can, usually illegal. Infrastructure is crumbling and network transmissions inside the border are throttled back. They are looked down upon by the “City” people, and it’s not safe for a City person to be in the Borders, especially at night.
Well, I’ve said enough about the book, which I found fascinating to read. However, as I was reading it and getting down to the last few pages, I was wondering just how Ms. Robertson would end it. It seemed there was a surfeit of character backstories to tell, (and some unnecessarily long as it turns out), that more could have been written about the U.S. post-revolt. Some may find the ending different than what they imagined or lacking in what might be called a tidy ending. The truth is, it is difficult to end a story like this, for it is more than the struggle of a few people to expose the Big Six and government for what it is. The world goes on, changed, but has it been radically changed? There is much work to do once the revolt is over. Such speculations are left up to the readers of Insatiable Machine to envision for themselves.
At any rate, Insatiable Machine was a good sci-fi read, and the social issues it addresses could well be prophetic if they were not already a present reality, albeit not as encompassing (yet) as they are in the book. Add in the increasing influence of and the dependency on technology each day and you have a fore-gleam of the future that is frightening in itself.