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WesternSFA


The Passengers
by John Marrs
Berkley, $26.00, 352pp
Published: August 2019

I hadn't heard of John Marrs before, but he's building quite a bibliography and it seems that they're doing very well. This one feels like a standalone novel, but doing my research, it looks like it's set in the same universe as other novels, such as The One, which is being adapted to television as a new Netflix show.

He writes thrillers, though the ones I'm looking at seem to have at least a base in science or technology, as does this one. We're in a near future UK, whose government is pioneering a complete transition to self-driving traffic in a decade. Marrs posits five levels of technology here, with level 1 being a car that can cruise and brake and keep itself within the white lines, but is otherwise driven by a human being. The current state of self-driving cars on the road in our reality is level 4, doing everything themselves but with a human being inside ready to take over at any moment.

Level 5, already deployed in this fictional UK by page one, is the ultimate in self-driving cars, AI-controlled vehicles with complete autonomy, without any way for anyone inside to help even if they wanted to. Without a steering wheel, manual brakes or other controls, everyone in a level 5 car is just a passenger. And that's where the title of this book kicks in.

In Part 1, we're introduced to a diverse set of Passengers. There's an aging actress, Sofia, who most would recognise. There's Claire, who's not far away from giving birth. There's a married couple in separate cars, Sam and Heidi; he's a businessman and she's a cop. There's a young man called Jude. There's even Shabana, an Indian wife attempting to escape her long abusive marriage now her husband has been arrested for human trafficking; she speaks Bengali and very little English.

We get to know a little about each of them, but I should emphasise a little because it's very important that we don't know everything. That's because a game is about to kick into gear and information is crucial. Each vehicle is now going somewhere other than where their Passengers expect. A mysterious intruding voice explains that their journeys will last about 280 miles and will likely end in their deaths.

Meanwhile, somewhere in Birmingham, Libby is the member of the public called to take part in a Vehicle Inquest Jury. It seems that self-driving cars are still involved in accidents, even if it's far fewer than when people were in control, and when that happens, a jury is tasked to determine if the vehicle was at fault or whether a human element was to blame. Libby is against AIs running cars, so she's not enjoying herself, especially given that it always seems to be a human's fault.

And, without going much further, I'll point out that all of these players in this very deliberately staged drama are there for a reason. The Hacker, who bursts onto the screens of the jury to make them the leads, is streaming it all everywhere online. He's even invited a social media team into the jury's deliberations. And, as he quickly demonstrates by blowing up a vehicle with a double amputee Falklands veteran suffering from cancer inside, he expects to have his wishes honoured to the nth degree.

What follows isn't the cat and mouse game we might expect, having seen films like Die Hard with a Vengeance. This isn't a game of Simon Says and it isn't a distraction. In fact, beyond the cold acknowledgement that eight cars will crash head on at 70 mph in an undisclosed location a few hours later, we are as in the dark about what this game is about as the petrified Passengers and the members of the Vehicle Inquest Jury, who are forced into playing a very active role in proceedings.

The psychology here is fantastic. The blurb on the dustjacket extends to the point where these unwilling players are forced to make decisions they don't want to make, so I'll go that far. In this scenario, who would you vote to die or to survive? And remember, you're making your decision in front of the people doing the dying and also a growing audience around the world because this has turned into an insanely huge social media event.

I want to tell you so much more, but I won't because this book deserves not to be spoiled and it would be so easy to do that. I'll just emphasise again that this boils down to how we see information and when we acknowledge we've got enough to make a decision, when lives are on the line. Quite obviously, there's a parallel to the Vehicle Inquest Jury, where people are making such decisions in retrospect. The accidents have already happened and people have died but they have to determine the blame based on provided information.

But how does this tie to the Hacker's game? What's his motive? Sure, he's a hacker and apparently a damn good one, but how does he know what he knows? I point out afresh that the players were not chosen at random. They're all in the game for a reason, even if we don't know any of them. Probably the best thing about the book is how Marrs plays with us just as the Hacker does the human pieces on his game board. His control of information is exquisite and the results are completely evil. I could easily imagine him hunched over his keyboard laughing maniacally as he inserts yet another twist.

And, oh my goodness, are there twists here. There are so many twists that we start to expect them and try to figure them out before Marrs/the Hacker lets us in on the latest vicious secret. He always outdoes us. And then he layers twists on twists, without this ever becoming too convoluted. It's a glorious approach for a thriller because it keeps us turning pages, faster and faster because the way this unfolds in realtime translates to us.

We start to think that, if we put the book down to go to the bathroom, we'd miss something and, if we go to sleep, everyone would be dead by the time we woke up. At least it's a weekend. Finally dropping at 7 am isn't the problem it could have been.

I do have some questions that I'd like to ask the author but can't do so in this review without venturing into spoiler territory. All the core stuff is explained appropriately and Marrs obviously dedicated a good portion of his writing time into ensuring that, but, as an IT security professional, I had a few questions that he didn't answer with regards to the wider framework.

And, at the end of the day, that's not really a bad thing. While he provides closure through explanation to the story at the heart of this thriller, he's also generating a lot of questions in a science fiction manner that we might be asking ourselves in a decade's time. This isn't made-up tech, it's coming and we should be examining the moral and ethical ramifications of it. It's a given that this would be a great choice for book club discussion but it's a gimme for, well, Netflix adaptation when the time is right. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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