Book review: Auxiliary: London 2039 by Jon Richter

Stop me if you heard this before: a gruff, alcoholic detective is roped into a routine homicide investigation, where he is pressured to come to a clean, politically expedient but ultimately wrong conclusion and frame an innocent man.  Instead, his personal integrity pushes him towards the more difficult path, where he discovers a sinister conspiracy, while dodging the calls from his superiors to stand down.  This is a framework of many novels, and it’s up to the author to work within its limitations to make the very common plot stand out.  Auxiliary adds scary but believable technology, and social change to the mix, and the author brews everything in an oppressive enough atmosphere to cook up a fast-paced, near-future thriller.

Carl Dremmler is one of the few people in London who still have a job.  He is a detective in a world where automation has consumed so many professions that most people live off Universal Basic Income, spending their time in apathy or inside a virtual world so compelling that people fall victim to starvation while connected.  Those who are not hooked up to the virtual world wear Spex – glasses with augmented reality, with access to TIM, an Alexa-like artificial intelligence that responds to voice commands, but also collects all data the wearers generate.  Detectives like Dremmler have access to much of that data, such as camera feeds, people identifiers and the locations of their suspects.

Human detectives are still needed to access places where TIM can’t get, due to the lack of sensors.  The book opens in one such place, where Dremmler enters an apartment to find a dead body of an AltWorld user, hooked to the virtual world until he died.  He is quickly summoned to a murder scene, though.  A man crushed his girlfriend’s skull with his artificial arm, and he swears the arm acted on its own.  Fearing a massive scandal that would reveal that artificial human enhancements or even TIM were unreliable, Dremmler’s boss, Maggie, orders the detective to frame the hapless man.  Dremmler disagrees and goes on his own to investigate, slowly progressing in his leads, until he finds a rival company bent on replacing TIM with its own product, who had been hacking TIM to kill people.  But not all may be as it seems: was TIM really hacked, or did it murder on its own?  Who was really in charge of the investigation?  And why was Dremmler even allowed to veer off his path over the course of the investigation?  The fast-paced explosive finale may answer some questions, but it also creates new ones.  And that’s when the book falls apart.  But we’ll get to that later…

Auxiliary is a very atmospheric book, which is easy to read.  It can be finished in two or three evenings, and it will keep the reader entertained.  Many reviewers compare the novel to Blade Runner, Dremmler to Deckard, and to 2001: A Space Odyssey, TIM to HAL.  While I see their point, I personally was looking at different visuals.  The detective reminded me more of Stephen Rea’s detective character from V for Vendetta.  The London of that movie had also a similar ambiance to the London in Auxiliary.  The Spex, and their depiction of their augmented reality, was close to that of the movie Anon.  TIM, the total surveillance and autonomous vehicles were close to Minority Report (the movie, not the book).  But ultimately, the technology of the book is eerily in line with the current evolution of Amazon products: from total camera coverage with the Ring doorbell cameras, through remotely operated locks to allow access to Amazon delivery personnel, to the voice command Alexa whose recordings are being increasingly used by law enforcement.  Richter is extrapolating a very disturbing, but plausible future.

Dremmler fits this future.  He is appropriately gruff, has just the right amount of emotional baggage (a dead daughter for which he blames his wife), and has a weakness in the form of alcohol.  The protagonist may sound formulaic, and yet there is something compelling about him.  He is an everyday man, with whom it is very easy to sympathize.  He has a good moral compass and does not blindly follow the easiest path.  He is not extraordinary: no sharp mind or deductive powers.  Instead, he follows the proper investigative procedure, and is essentially led to the right conclusions by being persistent and consistent.  The author allows us a peek into Dremmler’s mind, showing that his investigative path may not be easy or pleasant, but he persists because that’s how things are done.  I found this portrayal very realistic.

Other characters are also better fleshed out than one would expect from their bit parts.  The relationship between Dremmler and his wife over their dead daughter simmers throughout the book, until it becomes very relevant towards the end.  Maggie’s backstory comes to light in the final chapters, as a way of delayed explanation for her personality quirks and a somewhat unique relationship with the detective.  And as a way to deliver a totally unnecessary gut punch at the end.

The writing is captivating.  It checks almost all the checkboxes for thriller novels, as taught in writing workshops: it has the proper inner thoughts scenes, the one dream sequence that serves to confuse the reader a little, the right amount of pacing.  I even suspect that the author had pages of background information on all characters, to establish their behavior in the book.  All this leads to an easy to read, fast-paced thriller.

Unfortunately, the story has also a few problems, which I was unable to overlook.  The novel is divided into three very distinct acts.  The first act is mainly exposure, and I felt that the author was hitting me over the head with facts about his world.  I would have liked to be eased into the world a little more gradually, or filled the blanks myself (after all, his world is not all that dissimilar from what I expect our future to be, unless personal surveillance devices are rejected in our timeline), but instead I got a future history lesson on how TIM, the universal basic income and human augmentation have come to pass.  The middle act is superb, with great pacing, character development and plausible storyline.  The last act is where everything dies in a fire.  The character of the book changes.  From a detective procedural taking place in the future, we jump into action horror with Lovecraftian visuals.  And suddenly, the tight prose turns sloppy.  There is a minor character, a robot, who is willing to sacrifice its life for Dremmler, even though it barely interacted with him before.  TIM, who needs Dremmler to access offline places, suddenly can open and close locks in those places without a problem.  That same TIM goes from a reasonable and reliable A.I. to a certifiably insane computer in a heartbeat.  None of this is adequately explained, and not even the fast action and the satisfyingly unexpected twists in the story hide these shortcomings.

Auxiliary: London 2039 is a solid piece of work.  The second act, the bulk of the book, is a great detective procedural, set in a plausible and frightening future, with relatable characters and a satisfyingly progressing plot.  The main and secondary characters are surprisingly well developed, and the writing well-paced and compelling.  Unfortunately, the excessive exposition in the first act and the confusing final act spoil the reading experience a little.  Still, I can recommend this book as a good and entertaining diversion for a few long evenings.

 

Disclaimer: I have received a free review copy of this book from TCK Publishing.  Consciously, I have been trying to be as analytical as I could without spoiling my enjoyment of the title.  I don’t believe it’s the case, but it is possible that subconsciously I may have been biased in favor of the book.  Please keep that in mind when thinking about my review.  As a thanks for the review copy, I am happy to point you where to find more info on the book and its author:

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