Unknown-3If Then
Matthew de Abaitua
Angry Robot, 416 pages
Review by Elsa Bouet

When I picked up If Then by Matthew de Abaitua, I found the summary interesting but was prepared for disappointment, predicting it would end up being a boring combination of things that have been done before. If Then however is a clever, well-accomplish blend of dystopian, post-apocalyptic fiction, post-humanism, cyberpunk, a non-corny realistic love story, and even uses realist description of war. De Abaitua writes with skill and originality.

The novel is set after the events of the Seizure, in the small English town of Lewes; survivors seem to have recovered from a financial apocalypse, rather than a nuclear or environmental disaster. Inhabitants have handed control of their lives over to the Process, an algorithm which calculates the utopian optimum for the population to thrive. It allocates people their jobs, monitors and controls production, but also determines who can stay in Lewes or who has to be evicted. The Process monitors people’s thoughts and feelings through an implant. James, the bailiff of the town, is the only one to have a two-way implant. During the evictions, the Process merges with him and dictates his actions. James, after the evictions, is left to ponder the ethics of his actions, not all of which he can account for.

James also patrols the outskirts of the town, and one day discovers Hector, an artificial man created by the Process, a reproduction of a First World War stretcher bearer. For some reason, the Process is recreating the war on the outskirts of Lewes. James takes him back to the town, but as they have no indication that this was what the Process wanted, the townsfolk question whether this was the right thing to do. James and the Lewesians have little control over their lives and feel powerless to make decisions for themselves.

As the story progresses, the war creeps ever closer to Lewes. James decides to join the war effort with Hector. Their journey to war is an attempt to save the town but also a journey to solve the mystery of why the Process is recreating the battle of the Dardanelles on their doorstep.

The story’s multiple plot lines are compelling, as the reader wants answers to the questions facing the protagonists. The novel skilfully moves from one episode to the next using a variety of writing styles. It creates an interesting paradox by describing a seemingly idyllic community while offering hints of dystopian control. The characters are relatable and fascinating, and we get a good level of introspection so that we have a clear picture of how they feel, think and understand their lives under the Process. As they reflect more and more about the Process’s actions, their views and personalities change, which also drives the story forward. The novel convincingly shifts to realism. The horrors of war are tense and grim, the high level of suspense is gripping.

But the real achievement of the novel lies in its ability to connect the various episodes together to deliver a stark criticism of the system in which we live. Under the Process, ‘No one knows what makes a difference to eviction’, whether it is one’s behaviour, feelings and thoughts, one’s non-optimal functioning, or one’s actions. People understand that under the Process ‘no one is indispensable. No one is necessary’. This statement that the inhabitants of Lewes have internalised applies to their present reality, but is also relevant to the soldiers who die in the re-enacted war and to life before the Process. As James realises he is ‘not nostalgic for the lost age of job’ because ‘it was an arbitrary sorting mechanism for his class’. Just as evictions under the Process appear arbitrary, the job one had before the Seizure, and one’s eviction from the job, seemed arbitrary. As jobs before the Process were increasingly performed by machines and algorithms – notably in the financial sector – ‘people ceased to be a vital component of the economic system’ and were therefore redundant. The novel articulates the ways in which many of us are made to feel in the aftermath of the financial crisis under different types of processes which consider human lives as part of algorithmic calculations.

I really enjoyed this novel for its cynical reflection of our own world and I cannot praise it highly enough: eloquent, intelligent, brilliant.

This review was first published in Shoreline of Infinity 3.