The ideas of cyberpunk have been around as far back as the 1960s when the ‘new wave’ science fiction scene gained momentum. Luminaries such as Harlen Ellison, Philip K Dick, John Brunner and Roger Zelazny began experimenting with the genre in efforts to break away from its pulp traditions. It wasn’t until the late 1970s and early 1980s that cyberpunk became really established though, with Judge Dredd, Akira, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and of course William Gibson’s seminal work, Neuromancer. Championed by authors such as Bruce Sterling, Rudy Rucker, Richard Morgan and others, it’s a genre that remains as popular as ever, encouraged by book, film and game media channels. We might even see the game Cyberpunk 2077 released before the date of the title.
Auxiliary: London 2039 takes advantage of our current understanding of technology and politics to create a dark, plausible cyberpunk future set in dear old Blighty. Much like they are currently, the streets of London are quiet: but these people are not on a pandemic lockdown, instead being immersed in an addictive alternative reality provided by The Imagination Machine (TIM). TIM isn’t just a virtual reality system though; it’s an omnipresent AI that controls pretty much every aspect of society. It controls the autonomous vehicles that silently slip through the streets. It cooks the food everyone eats, the 3D printers in every home, plans people’s lives, and tells them about the world around them through Google Glass-like ‘Specs’. It even controls the robots that have replaced many jobs and some human companionship roles. It’s an insidious, tireless servant. Some form of universal basic income seems to have been put in place, giving people more free time than ever before.
On the surface this seems almost utopian. However, the tone of the book is far from it, dealing as it does with the negative aspects of such a society. Addiction to such immersive technology can (and does) have deadly consequences, while blind faith in one single controlling technology seems naive and yet also worryingly credible. It paints a bleak picture in which our illusions of meaningful roles in society, and those of control, have been stripped away without protest. In some ways it’s the pinnacle of capitalisation: a population entirely consumed by product.
One of the few jobs left for a real-life human is that of police detective, which leads us to the protagonist Carl Dremmer. Dremmer is old-school, 40-something, wary and weary of this ever-present technology. He also seems to have pretty old-fashioned views on women, over-sexualising every female character. I’m prepared to believe (and hope) that the author does this as a deliberate mechanism to highlight the juxtaposition between modern social norms and old-fashioned views. It did prevent me rooting too much for Dremmer; even though he has a tragic past, he’s not that likeable. On the positive side, it does seem that most of society has embraced a more modern view, with gender-neutral pronouns and acceptance of people’s differences. The book does feature non-binary characters (known as neuts) but even these are sexualised by Dremmer.
The story is solid, if not entirely original, as Dremmer is caught up in an investigation in which the suspect is accused of killing his partner with a robotic limb. The suspect claims innocence, and that the limb had a life of its own. Given that the limb was controlled by a chip in the suspect’s brain and ultimately by TIM, if this proves true it means either TIM’s gone a bit rogue, or the “unhackable AI’” has been hacked. Neither option is ideal and the company that owns TIM will of course do anything it can to prevent such a story coming out. Dremmer’s boss puts the pressure on to get a confession out of the suspect before things get worse. Playing out as part thriller and part police procedural, it’s well crafted and entertaining with a strong cast of supporting characters. The ending is also not what you expect — and all the better for it.
I am a big fan of cyberpunk and Richter’s interpretation of the genre is intriguing. It combines the most likely future technology of self-driving cars, more functional robotics, cybernetic enhancements and advanced AI with a disturbing, all-too-plausible society. The author is a talented writer, his style fitting well both in tone and execution with a near-future cyberpunk thriller. The pace is fast and there are plenty of twists and turns — enough that my attention didn’t waver once. There are some solid arguments against continued progression of the mega-corporation and our willing acceptance of socially changing technology that seems combined with the gradual loss of our individual freedoms.
It also raises the disturbing question: what exactly is the point of ‘us’ as a society, if we don’t take part in it and leave all the decisions to the machines we built?
Auxiliary: London 2039 is available from TCK Publishing.
Title: Auxiliary: London 2039
Author: John Richter
Formats: paperback, ebook