THE ABSOLVED by Matthew Binder
Black Spot Books p/b £8.44/US$ 14.99
Review by Nigel Robert Wilson
The narrator of this tale is Henri, a wealthy cancer doctor who is a cynical manipulative opportunist. The reasons for this are obscure until almost the end of the book when he allows the veil to drop, but this story is really about a very clever yet amazingly stupid man. It makes for a difficult read. It might also explain why Alan Dershowitz, a famous American lawyer endorses its message.
There is a distinct elegance to the writer’s style which produces memorable phrases such as `the poetry of cemeteries’ that goes a long way to redeeming this work. The book is to be savoured rather than devoured.
The story is based in the near future when artificial intelligence is progressively taking over human tasks, largely because it is seen to be cheaper and more reliable, thus squeezing humans from out of the economy. The Absolved is the collective name for such redundant humans who are blest with the Basic Income of US$ 2,500 a month as a constitutional right. There are two possible outcomes to this scenario; either humanity redirects its time and energy into creative activities as Henri wishes to believe, or, artificial intelligence renders humanity economically redundant.
There is a further category of human in this society called The Futile who have absolutely nothing and have to live on charitable handouts. Everyone’s medical bills are paid for by the taxpayer funded National Healthcare Service which to Henri is slowly making the government bankrupt.
But then Henri is among the wealthy and would think like that anyway. He has a young mistress, Taylor who he wishes to get ranked among the wealthy elite and much of the first half of the book is devoted to those efforts. Henri’s wife, Rachel and son, Julian play a marginal role until this particular hurdle is crossed but then become a critical factor as the denouement advances into view.
There is a background of technical developments such as `grams’ which are effectively a sort of mobile computer integrated into your hands. These are of course paid for by the National Healthcare Service but provide the authorities with huge data records about each and every citizen. Motor vehicles are controlled by computers and everyone has an `Emma’ at home that controls the house and potentially its inhabitants. The atmosphere is heavily polluted often to the point that it prevents the solar panels from providing electricity.
Henri expects that sometime soon his medical specialism with be replaced by robots. His cynical acquaintance and boss, Serena becomes his bugbear. She insists that progress can’t be stopped but others make the point that if people have no place in society then what price is society? A political campaign headed by a man called Bradford, who is running for President, takes a wholly Luddite view and wants to put an end to artificial intelligence.
In the end Henri is made redundant, finds he has inadvertently funded a terrorist attack aimed at the role of artificial intelligence and gets sent to prison. Once there he discovers he has somehow become a public hero.
There are many delicious sub-plots running through this tale which are as exquisite as the main story. It demonstrates that life is not simple even if you pass it over to robots. What this tale describes will not happen, but it just might provide the necessary kick-in-the-pants that force the political class to extract their noses from their underwear.