Saturday 1 April 2017

Review: Rococo by Sue Hollister Barr

Rococo is a short science fiction novel. Set in a future where people can choose to limit their physical interactions with others and rely on food printers & virtual communications, it's not very far fetched at all.

Our heroine lives in Alaska, isolated enough so she can't even see any other people or infrastructure from her comfortable home. However, her new boss has insisted on a "phys" meeting, so the start of the novel finds her in an office in a big city, trying to cope with her germ-phobia and emotional turmoil (anger and rage). It's not entirely clear whether she is more germ-phobic than average: clearly there are many people who live their lives similar to us today, while her own habit of avoiding the risk of contamination is common enough not to raise any eyebrows. (I guess if we no longer even notice that many Asian people wear medical face masks whenever they are outdoors, the sort of germ-avoidance  described in Rococo can't be far off)

The business meeting is surreal and strange, not least because of the Rococo fashion affecting people's speech and dress code, but it's when she points out that the starship drive she's been designing is only capable of a one-way trip that we realise why her manager insisted on meeting up in person: he needs to shut her up before she says or writes something in a way that is monitored. The story moves, smoothly, from slightly surreal, unsettling, into thriller territory.

As it develops, the sense of "something wrong with the world" steadily builds. From the fads and fashions, to the sense that all electronic communication is monitored, to the way people mess with minds, to the aliens - things are complicated and messy and a bit corrupted, just like the mind of our narrator. Rococo is a novel that could have been written by Philip K Dick, if Dick was still alive today.

It's a compelling novel because much of it is based in a very near future. The shifting employment patterns already have a name - they are currently being called "the gig economy" - while the 3D-printers and food synthesizers are just around the corner. The reliance on electronic communication and social networking (and its permanent record of every human interaction) is already here. The sort of self-driven, fast, flying personal transport envisioned is staple of SF, though unlikely to ever become quite as smooth and fast as it is in these stories.Really, it's only the aliens and the mind-messing that seem a little unlikely.

Don't expect a long novel: there are only really three main characters, and a few extras. Initially, I thought it was a novella: Somehow, I've gotten so used to modern SF novels being quite walloping in size, I forgot that the form used to average 50,000 words, not 100,000, in the not-too-distant past. That said, the shorter length suits the story very well, and ensures that the pace never slacks.

If you want a quick, Philip K Dick style thriller, written for a 21st Century audience, then Rococo should be right up your street.

Rating: 4/5