The first chapter of The Accord sets up its premise very neatly, under cover of a rather cloying short story first published in PostScripts #15 in 2008. Noah Barakh, with massive government backing, is building a digital heaven, where those whose brains have been imaged can live again after their death in our world. This Accord is defined by a consensus of all those who live in it, a renewed version of our Earth as its concious elements believe it should be. Whilst developing the Accord, however, Noah has created private instances of heaven, where he succeeds in seducing Priscilla Burnham, a representative of the government, and wife of Elector Jack Burnham, apparently the most powerful person in Britain. Noah's attempt to repeat this in the real world leads to both his and Priscilla's deaths. As the story ends (and the book proper begins), they are reloaded together and "await the coming of consensus, the Accord" (p. 22).
Deeply jealous of Barakh and Priscilla, Elector Burnham vows to destroy the Accord, to stop them cheating behind his back. He rages across the pages, murdering his wife in a fit of jealousy and torturing his ever-faithful servant and bodyguard on the say-so of a misplaced word from a stranger. This makes his presence at the peak of power difficult to understand as he doesn't appear to have sufficient self control to keep the reigns of power. Though Brooke never explains how government works in the Earth of this book, even the gangsterism and crowd pleasing on show need more consideration than Burnham seems capable of. Perhaps this is an indication that Burnham is falling apart as even faster than the world he lives in.
That world is familiar from many a near future dystopia. There are blasts in Shanghai, riots in Padova, Spain seems strangely reminiscent of its form at the start of Baxter's Flood (2008) and boat people flood out of Africa in the hope of finding safety in Europe. As conditions deteriorate, mass suicide parties make their escape into the Accord. Noah Barakh is busy, both within the artificial reality of the Accord and, via back doors, in the real world, attempting to complete the work interrupted by his death. The population, and therefore the computation requirements, are increasing, exacerbating network problems outside, on Earth, while there are still consensus quakes and discord within the Accord. The key to stability for the Accord is the attempt to rebuild it on the ultimate quantum computer—"embedding it in the fabric of the universe, an alternate quantum reality" (p. 250).
Brooke could easily have spent the whole book on this struggle, the decaying state of the Earth, and the consequences of the technology already on display. Once a full mind upload is possible, for example, it is natural that there would be people who make money out of allowing others to download into their bodies. Taking advantage of this, the Accord creates an amalgam personality from existing uploads and sends it to murder Burnham. Instead, the second half of the book is v2.0. The Accord is moved onto the quantum substrate successfully and the terrors of the collapsing Earth are dismissed to focus on the generated world—but he also avoids the generation of an obvious Singularity. The Accord is a consensus reality, which means that grim council estates still exist; that there are still people who do menial jobs; that Burnham's temporal power translates after his death to a new base in the Accord; and that he carries all his politicking and violence with him.
The reset also causes both Burnham and Priscilla to lose substantial parts of their knowledge of the earlier instance of the Accord. This reshapes the triangle with Noah, who carries directly through, and powerfully recomplicates the reader response to all three characters. Can Priscilla be responsible for something she doesn't know she did, or that she doesn't know has happened to her? What right does Noah have to save her from a prison she no longer recognises she is in?
In the Accord, there is fear of a new overpopulation as huge numbers of people appear after dying on Earth. In an attempt to achieve balance, Burnham engineers new wars which soak up lives. He can consider this a moral act because death inside the Accord, even though it is fully experienced, is not the end. It is, instead an opportunity for regeneration, a recompiling of the individual. This is the most intense realisation of heaven in the book, a conceptual tool which allows for an idealised reincarnation; rebirth at an ideal age, with the key components of personality and memory still intact. Rather than an eternal life, a long chain of lives is possible. It becomes a vast plot generator of its own, particularly after the invention of "interstitial" spaceships which can leap to new stars and the creation of new subrealities—an alpine valley hidden inside a shop, for example.
As the universe and time opens out before us, the book struggles not to lose all shape—Barakh is trapped for an unquantifiable age in a Victorian Eastbourne whilst Priscilla seeks the Lord of All on a far planet. Burnham, filled with power and self hate, becomes a warlord. There are vignettes of planetary romance and fantasy which recall Justina Robson's Living Next Door to the God of Love (2005). All these are strung like pearls on a cord which maintains the tension of the first chapter: Barakh still seeks the instance of Priscilla which could love him; Burnham still seeks the ultimate destruction of Barakh; whilst Priscilla still seeks freedom.
There is, however, a completely different construction of the same events. Barakh can walk across worlds, but his powers are those of a system administrator, able to read anybody's files. Burnham, without such access rights, allies himself with a hacker who can undermine the protocols. This hacker, Chuckboy Lee, is painted in every colour of evil. He is a paedophile, manipulative and wilful, who remixes people—and copies of people—regardless of their own wishes. That he learned these skills from the amalgam created by the Accord is not held to account, whilst Barakh's pursuit of an instance of Priscilla who can love him could be considered nothing more than a passive approach to the same end. Priscilla is often little more than an object—a token which Jack Burnham must possess, and which Barakh is prepared to chase endlessly.
It is the quality of Brooke's writing, however, which generates sympathy for Barakh and Priscilla. There is only one point at which there is any confusion as to the subject and this is clearly intended, heightening suspense through the introduction of a new actor. Otherwise, the different voices in which Brooke writes are clear and distinct—he uses an omniscient narrator in the third person, the first person for Barakh, and a first person plural for the complex personality that Burnham eventually becomes. The change in voice when describing Burnham's actions is subtly done—assisting our realisation that he has become Barakh's equal within the Accord. The use of "we" explains much of what is happening to Burnham whilst allowing parts of him to remain hidden.
We feel the rushing of blood, the thrill. We feel sick. We fucking hate what we are. What Chuckboy is. (p. 381)
Barakh's "I," by comparison, is much more open to the reader. He is resolute, committed to the success of the Accord at great personal cost, but still prepared to throw it all aside to chase after the hope of Priscilla's love.
Elector Burnham has brought you. I wonder if he has done this deliberately or if it is simply because of your role in the project in the old world. I understand that he has won. He has killed you and somehow he has won you back. I do not need reminding you of that. (p. 277)
This mawkish aspect rounds him, makes him a sympathetic character. Burnham's anger and disgust are similarly successful at making him a full individual, but rarely allow any sympathy. By comparison, as in the example above, Priscilla is "you" when the narration is in Barakh's position although otherwise the reader is generally allowed the omniscient view of her. We can know more about her than she knows about herself.
Or maybe, in the end, we know less. The end of The Accord shares some of the problems that faced Ian McDonald's Brasyl (2007). Once we recognise a quantum multiplicity, with all outcomes not only possible but coexistent, how do we wrench any satisfying conclusion from a story? Brooke offers a handful of alternative endings which draw attention to the construction of the book's world and its narrative: closing in the same cloying sweetness as the opening; states where the book's unsteady balance could be maintained forever; or brutalities which collapse the stories of Burnham and Barakh. This could have unpicked the whole effort; it is a measure of Brooke's mastery of his text and the quality of his writing that it does not. Instead, all the endings on offer are driven by the story, the characters and the concepts which the author has gathered together in these pages. To that extent, they can all provide a measure of satisfaction, and a confirmation of the richness of the reading experience.