Passengers to Sentience by Peter Salisbury

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Passengers to Sentience by Peter Salisbury

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Category: Science Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Amit Vyas
Reviewed by Amit Vyas
Summary: Works as an adventure story and introduces some interesting concepts though not quite convincing as space opera.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 436 Date: July 2009
ISBN: 978-0755211593

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Human beings are spread across the galaxy. The technology that allowed this to happen? Not faster than light travel, suspended animation or matter transfer but cloning. Want to start a new life elsewhere? Your mind and personality can be mapped as information. Unmanned ships are sent to inhabitable planets across the furthest reaches of space and upon arrival, the automated cloning vats begin re-creating your body and entering your stored mind and personality data.

Thanks to careful manipulation of genetic material, humans are now largely free of the warlike tendencies inherited from our animal past. Some vices remain however, which is where Data Detective Ben comes in. Fresh off his latest bust of the makers of synthetic drug Yellow, Ben knows a holiday is probably overdue and he has something special planned this time; a holiday as someone else for a while. A mind swap – enabling Ben to experience life in the body of someone living light years away, whilst retaining his memory and personality.

However the end of the trip doesn't go quite as planned and on his way back to his old life he wakes up…somewhere else. Make that someone else. One thing's for sure; he's definitely not feeling himself.

The opening chapters have the hallmarks of a cyberpunk thriller, complete with sticky web technology and AI detectives. What it morphs into can be described as 'A day in the life of Ben Denisovich – living hell in an industrial gulag'. While the change was abrupt it wasn't unpleasant, due to the fact that it promised to be a ripping yarn of a struggle against long odds in a harsh environment. Such stories are usually enjoyable whether it is the Count of Monte Cristo or Alien, and this section of Passengers is no different. Ben's struggle to regain his own memory and identity takes up a significant chunk of the novel, and this section is well paced and the most enjoyable part of the novel.

What was surprising is that the reader is left isolated in the prison along with Ben. There are no cutaways to his detective colleagues trying to solve the case which has them scratching their heads in the early going, or indeed the mystery of our missing protagonist. The reader is left feeling that the novel has completely switched gears and that the earlier noir elements, the cat and mouse game between cyber cops and data criminals, has been abandoned. While Ben's predicament is engaging due to the extremely hostile conditions, a wider focus could have helped to cement our hero as part of a larger world, and allowed other characters to shine in the spotlight.

The third and final section of Passengers follows on from Ben's time in prison. While the original version of this review blithely described a little of what happens, this reviewer is now erring on the side of caution and not revealing who or what is encountered next. Just in case it was meant to be a big surprise. In itself, this highlights the issue that readers may have with this part. The significance of the encounter can be understood intellectually, but is not felt emotionally as the 'nothing will ever be the same again' moment that perhaps it was meant to be. Suffice to say that this section gives another meaning to the title of the novel, and adds new significance to the use of bright colours in the cover art created by Charlotte Salisbury. The answers of who kidnapped Ben and why are revealed, the answers do not quite provide satisfactory closure. Though justice is done to the villains who had turned Ben's life inside out for most of the novel, it is not seen to be done – being reported instead as dialogue.

Passengers is an entertaining read though it's not quite sure what it wants to be. Is it one man's journey through hell and back, a crime caper or an account of the turning point in future human history? In movie terms imagine sitting down to watch a film which starts off in a similar vein to Minority Report, but somewhere during the running time the look and feel becomes more like Alien 3 which in the third act gives way to dialogue and interstellar politics similar to Star Trek: The Next Generation. Would you be happy that you had sampled from a smorgasbord of science fiction in one sitting, or would you be thrown by the changes? The answer to this question may determine whether or not this ride is for you.

I'd like to thank the author for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

If this type of book appeals to you then we think that you might enjoy Matter by Iain M Banks.

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