Love Minus Eighty. Book Review

Love-Minus-EightyLOVE MINUS EIGHTY by Will McIntosh

Orbit, p/b, 432pp, £7.99

Review by Julian White

The title might sound rather reminiscent of Haircut One Hundred’s Love Plus One, but don’t let that put you off, because Will McIntosh’s third novel is actually something quite special. Welcome to a futuristic New York of haves and have nots. For those in High Town, almost anything seems possible. Using augmented reality systems and sophisticated social networking, they can pop up anywhere on the planet and conduct multiple conversations at once, and even death needn’t be the end, thanks to cryogenic insurance and advanced revival techniques that can make you as good as new. Meanwhile, for people in Low Town, well, it’s as if the future didn’t happen.

Vacillating between these two worlds is Rob. Longing to be, of all things, a professional lute player, he’s too naïve and romantic really to fit in anywhere, and when the story begins things are about to get seriously bad for him. Driving recklessly after being dumped by his rich girlfriend, he accidentally runs over and kills a woman named Winter and is stricken by remorse. But then he learns that Winter has been accepted into the controversial “bridesicle” programme. This is an arrangement by which cute dead girls are held in cryogenic crèches in a swanky showroom, where they can be visited, and briefly reawakened, by rich men. If a man and a girl click, then he will foot the astronomical bill for having her properly revived in exchange for an unbreakable marriage contract. It’s a form of posthumous indentured servitude, but it’s a way back to life for the girls.

Rob’s reaction to this discovery is at the heart of the novel. He forces himself to visit Winter as a way of confronting what he’s done, and then agrees to return as often as he can to keep the terrified girl company. This isn’t as often as he would like, because he has to scrape together the exorbitant entrance fee by working long hours in Low Town, but it becomes his mission. And there’s a sense of urgency, because if Winter doesn’t have enough paying visitors, there’s a good chance she’ll be bumped from the bridesicle programme and cremated.

Is Rob falling in love with the girl he ran over? Well, why not? As he muses, “why was it so unlikely that you could meet your soul mate by hitting her with your vehicle?” Besides, relationships take all kinds of odd forms in the year 2133. Given us the wider perspective on modern romance are Nathan and Veronika, two dating coaches who build their clients’ profiles, matchmake for them using compatibility algorithms and, when need be, feed them chat-up lines. Funnily enough, they both happen to be single, and their attempts to find congenial companionship amid the glittering fakeness and soap bubble superficiality of High Town make for a light-hearted backdrop to the central narrative.

McIntosh crafts a neat and tidy plot that leaves nothing wasted and sets his characters dancing around each other in a satisfying manner before pairing some of them off. Where Love Minus Eighty really scores, though, is in its tone, perfectly pitched between hipster irony and yearning melancholia. In some ways, it’s a throwback to the New Wave fiction of the late ’60s and early ’70s, to books such as Thomas M. Disch’s 334, with the addition of the kind of rapid-fire, stylized repartee that you associate with English dubs of Japanese anime. Throughout, it’s embellished with humorous details, such as the cup that tells you when it’s time to surrender your seat in the coffee house, or the holographic ad that will stalk you down the street unless your AR system has the power to block it.

This is a book with plenty to say about the way we live now and a witty and engaging manner of saying it. With its mixture of assured storytelling, clever ideas and a half-amused, half-tender portrayal of alienation in a fantastical big city milieu, Love Minus Eighty is an excellent example of character-driven, thematically rich SF, and even those usually frosty to the genre should get something out of it.