The Unravelling by Will Gibson

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The Unravelling by Will Gibson

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Category: Science Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: A fascinating speculative novel combining crime thriller with near-future technological change. One for anyone who likes a good story and also wrestling with the big questions of the day.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 228 Date: January 2024
Publisher: Grosvenor House Publishing
ISBN: 978-1803816753

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It's 2038 and Joe is a bored cop policing the wealthy and peaceful New York City. Joe longs for a bit of adventure and to get stuck into some really gritty crime detection. But then something goes horribly wrong with the AI system that now runs everything, making life easier for many, and riots start to spread. Finally, Joe gets to do some real policing. In the aftermath of the rioting global pop star Suki is kidnapped and Joe is assigned to bring her home. Joe isn't the only one trying to save Suki - Dylan, a British superfan and tech nerd, is also on the case. What went wrong? Did the system fail or was it hacked? And how is Suki's kidnapping connected?

The Unravelling is a timely piece of speculative fiction. Gibson's 2038 is a vision of how the world will look as the internet of things blends with AI and transforms our lives. In Gibson's world, the PCSO is now an android. Our homes are perfectly - and technologically - attuned to serve our every need, often before we've even thought about what that need might be. We wear glasses that connect us to an information superhighway. News has gone global. And yet, despite all this, the poor are still poor and violence hasn't gone away. Gibson's 2038 is a palette of winners and losers. I loved the way an imagined future and the current present merge in this story - Gibson discusses battles between the real tech giants of Microsoft and Google, and wonders where Elon Musk will take X next. And he speculates about the outcome of the war in Ukraine. It's quite a difficult task to make your characters shine when your worldbuilding is so important and so detailed but Joe, Suki and Dylan rise from the pages of the book as real and recognisable, full-rounded characters that you can believe in and follow with interest. The plot is cleverly worked through without any big holes and barrels along very satisfyingly - although I will say that a bit more pace could be injected.

The recent explosion in  technology and particularly AI - Chat GPT and others looking to dominate search, AI illustrators and their ever-so-slightly uncanny valley images, smart devices in households, big data crunching - promises yet another tech revolution that will have lasting impacts on our lives and on human societies generally. Is it a good thing? Will we be better for it? Is it inevitable? These are important questions and I think it's equally important that asking them is not limited to the political sphere. The arts are vital mediating tools. We shouldn't leave all these decisions to party politicians and technocrats. And the novel is a wonderful way to ask and to discuss. Are the systems robust? What about privacy? What about the costs? Do they outweigh the benefits?

Without wishing to give too much away, I think Gibson is somewhat more optimistic than I am. Instinctively, I baulk at giving a government run by people too much power over me or too much access to my life. And it seems to me that a government of impersonal systems would take on a life of its own - just as The Unravelling discusses. And yet, the benefits are undeniable. Can we design this technology to abide by the first principle of, as articulated by Gibson, Do No Harm? If you're interested in making up your own mind about these questions, you should read The Unravelling. It's a fun thriller with some great world-building, so you'll enjoy it for that alone. But it will also give you pause for thought.

Recommended. If The Unravelling appeals, you might also enjoy Night Sessions by Ken MacLeod.

You can read more about Will Gibson here.

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