In Plato’s Symposium, Alcibiades describes Socrates as resembling “one of those Silenus-figures sculptors have on their shelves. They’re made with flutes or pipes. You can open them up, and when you do you find little figures of the gods inside.” Translation: Socrates may have looked like nothing much (with his peasant’s clothes, his boorish manners), but if you cracked him open, you would find that wisdom lurked within.
Adam Roberts’s sixteenth novel, The Real-Town Murders, is a bit of a Silenus figure. Superficially, what we have here is a propulsive near-future thriller, somewhat in the mode of John Scalzi’s Lock In (2014). There are murders, mean streets, chases, ticking clocks. The plot is ingenious. The SF conceits are elegantly done (“sims,” “hybrid trees,” “myrmidrones,” an immersive Internet analogue called the Shine). You could take The Real-Town Murders with you to the beach (this would probably be an unusually highbrow beach) and read it for fun. Or you could open it up and take a look inside – in which case, you would find that, hidden inside the trunk of this particular jalopy, Roberts has smuggled a profound excursus on noticing and seeing. Because it turns out that The Real-Town Murders is a novel about attention: how we use it, what it means. So, caveat lector: in a novel about attention, we should be careful about what we notice, or we just might discover, when the final page is turned, that we have noticed nothing at all.
The Real-Town Murders pops up at an interesting moment in Roberts’s career. In a blog post published on his website in August 2016 (and since deleted), Roberts mused on the SF community’s semi-indifferent response to his previous novel, The Thing Itself (2015). “Latterly,” he wrote, “my writing has shifted from being an also-ran to a not-even ran.” It was a moment of uncharacteristic pessimism. Characteristically, it lasted no longer than a paragraph:
Enough of the doleful countenance: I've reappraised. My next novel, coming from Gollancz in 2017, will be a lot less ambitious (a lot less pretentious, you might say). It will be a near-future puzzle whodunit, and I hope it's entertaining, ingenious, and readable. But that's all it will be: it will attempt no Thing Itself-style contortions or clever-clevernesses, it will push no envelopes, certainly not to tearing-point.
Pondering this, a cynic might conclude that Roberts was all set to go slumming. “[E]ntertaining, ingenious, and readable”: it sounds like a frank grab for commercial appeal. On the other hand, by May 2017, Roberts was describing The Real-Town Murders as “part locked-room puzzle-whodunit, part SF/Hitchcockian thriller, and part literary-pretentious meditation on location, gender and textuality.” Kicked out the door, ambition and pretentiousness appeared to have snuck back in through the window. Perhaps it was a case of plus ça change, plus c’est la chose elle-meme (oh dear).
But let’s have a look at the thing itself. The inciting incident of The Real-Town Murders derives from an unrealised idea of Alfred Hitchcock’s, which Roberts recounted in a pre-publication interview for Amazing Stories:
The germ of the book was an account I came across of a film Hitchcock never got around to making. He had the idea for a pre-credits sequence, set (this was the early 1970s) in a fully automated, robot-only car factory. He said the camera would follow the whole process of a car being made: you’d see the raw materials being delivered by automated truck; the camera would work its way along the assembly line […] No people around at all; everything automated […] the camera would follow the now completely built car out the other end of the factory, down a ramp to join a long line of similarly assembled autos […] and … inside would be a dead body. “If only I could figure out how that dead body got into that car,” Hitchcock said, “I would make that movie.” But he never did, and so the movie was never made.
And this, transposed to a UK roughly half a century hence, is the opening scene of The Real-Town Murders. Our protagonist is Alma (no surname given), a licensed private security agent who lives in R!-Town (formerly Reading) with her partner, Marguerite. When the novel begins, Alma has been hired by the owners of McA, a company that makes “artisanal autos, built the old-fashioned way, not just squirted out of an industrial printer, each detail checked by hand” (p. 6). (This is sly: Roberts knows that new bits of tech make old bits of tech look more “natural,” and therefore more authentic.) In the trunk of a car manufactured at McA’s all-robot plant, the body of Adam Kem, a civil servant in his 50s, is discovered. Kem’s internal organs have been pureed by an unknown weapon. Nobody knows how his body wound up in the trunk: the car has been constructed entirely by machines under the supervision of the factory AI, and the security feed shows no human interference of any kind. The mystery seems insoluble. Worse, secret government agencies are circling, and Alma’s movements are heavily constrained: her partner Marguerite has been maliciously infected with a genehacked disease, an “aggressive neoplastic lipid” that can only be treated once every four hours, and only by Alma herself, “or a sudden brainstem inflammation would kill Marguerite in minutes.” Alma’s iron need to treat Marguerite every four hours generates much of the novel’s suspense: will she make it home in time? Will she outwit the police myrmidrone stationed by conspirators outside the door of her apartment? More piquantly still, Marguerite is the brains of the operation—the one most likely to actually solve the case. As she reminds Alma, “I’m the Mycroft here. You’re not the Mycroft. You’re the Yourcroft, at best” (p. 9). The chase is on.
So far, so near-future-thriller-business-as-usual—although we must admit, we’re in the presence of an unusually good near-future thriller, in which the ticking-clock mechanisms have been designed as if by one of those artisanal robots, with near-inhuman precision and poise. But at this stage, we’re still only seeing the outside of the Silenus-figure. It is, I suppose, theoretically possible to read The Real-Town Murders without noticing any evidence at all for the existence of the little gods within. But look again: that sequence in which Alma, paralysed by a sedative, succeeds in crashing a plane and escaping her captors—isn’t that vaguely familiar? And what about the scene in which an army of predatory drones settles ominously all over the street, the individual drones whirring and cheeping as Alma picks her way past—haven’t we seen that before?
Of course we have. The plane-crash set-piece is a riff on a drunken Cary Grant escaping his captors in North by Northwest (1959). And the drone attack (the chapter is called “The Drones”) homages the ending of The Birds (1963). By the time we get to the climactic battle—which takes place in and around a giant chalk effigy of William Shakespeare’s face, carved into the Cliffs of Dover—it would take real effort to miss the point: Roberts has written a Hitchcockian chase thriller crammed full of Hitchcockian allusions. Let’s see: Hitchcock’s original title for North by Northwest was “The Man who Sneezed in Lincoln’s Nose”; the final showdown of The Real-Town Murders takes place in a chapter called “The Woman who Sneezed in Shakespeare’s Nose.” And Alma, of course, was the name of Hitchcock’s wife and screenwriting partner (although the word alma—as the classically-trained Professor Roberts certainly knows—also derives from the Latin almus, meaning “nourishing,” making it precisely the right name for a character who nourishes her bedridden partner both literally and figuratively). And finally—In case we’re still feeling obtuse—the epigraph to Part 1, from T.S. Eliot, is attributed, or misattributed, to a poem called North by North Wasteland (“Think of the key, each in his prison/Thinking of the key”). No clever-clevernesses, eh? As D.H. Lawrence said: trust the tale, not the teller.
But hang on: what the hell is The Waste Land doing there, at the head of a novel that pays such elaborate homage to Alfred Hitchcock? Think of the key: this sounds like an instruction, direct from Roberts himself. And the key, in this instance, is the Shine—the World Wide Web on steroids, the implacably seductive cyberspatial playground that sits at the heart of Roberts’s vision of the world to come. I mentioned Scalzi’s Lock In up above. In that novel, victims of a paralytic syndrome called Haden’s have been furnished with an immersive virtual-reality forum called the Agora, in which they can act, think, fantasize, and be. The Shine is Roberts’s version of this concept—not by any means a new SF idea, but used, in The Real-Town Murders, in a deeply interesting way. As a deluded government whistleblower called (ho ho!) Derp Throat tells Alma, the Shine is:
online and inline. It’s immersive […] Almost everybody has visited. And why wouldn’t they? It’s so rich an environment. It’s a place where dreams can be actualised. Made to come true. It’s a technicolour paradise. It’s a million paradises stacked up, and easy access to any of them […] People gravitate to the Shine because […] it’s simply better […] You can’t bully people into staying in a place they don’t want to stay in. (pp. 50-52).
The Shine, it transpires, is so great, so rich and interesting and cool, that almost everybody on earth is more than willing to spend every waking second inside it. Rather than unplug from the Shine, people zip themselves into “body-mesh” suits designed to move their physical form automatically, “to keep it limber, to avoid bedsores, stretch the muscles a little” (p. 9). When people do exit the Shine, they have forgotten how to speak: their verbal prose gets mangled in all sorts of interesting ways (a conceit worthy of Roberts’s great hero Anthony Burgess, this). The streets are denuded of people: this is a world in which eight individuals gathered together constitutes a crowd (p. 173), and in which Reading—or R!-Town—is “a desert cityscape” (p. 78), “all servers and storage” (p. 94). The terrain of the real has been sterilised and abandoned to machines: “Everything was continually cleaned away by tireless bots. It gave the whole place the vibe of a film set. Alma found herself wishing for a little honest urban dirt” (p. 223). The triumph of the Shine has also meant the wholesale export of civic participation to the online realm: questions of real-world political economy now languish, neglected, as everyone pursues online trade and pleasure. As another government employee—the sinisterly omnicompetent Pu Sto—puts it: “It’s not that people in the Shine don’t care, exactly: it’s that the Shine is so absorbing and so entertaining and so distracting that they only care if things intrude too disruptively” (p. 158).
Subsidiary to the Shine—and not entirely of it—is the feed: a neurological interface by means of which people can scan each other’s profiles, fire off instant messages, access email, and perform general interwebby ablutions. The feed is not immersive, but it has become indispensable to the business of daily life. For various reasons (ill-health, religion, principle), stray individuals choose or are compelled to live outside the Shine, but they still depend quite heavily on their feeds, which keep them jacked in to the global information networks. Alma is one of these individuals. Because of Marguerite’s condition, Alma must remain outside the Shine, adrift in Real-Town, among the bots and the server farms, in the eerily empty streets—her attention fixed (now we’re getting somewhere) on a world that has become (oh, yes) a waste land.
Think of the key … The key thing about the Shine and the feed is that they’re not reality. In fact, they’re better: character after character wonders aloud why anyone would prefer reality to the Shine. The Shine co-opts human attention on a global scale. But as readers we have no choice other to take all this on trust. Like Alma, we find ourselves excluded from the Shine. Roberts never shows us the stacked paradises of his neuromantic utopia. We only get to hear about them secondhand. This is interesting. But then again, the novel isn’t called The Shine-Town Murders. It’s called The Real-Town Murders. And Real-Town—or, more simply, real town—is what Roberts wants to talk about. (Compare, again, Scalzi’s Lock In, in which we are blithely escorted into an Agora that turns out to be kind of dull.)
This is a novel in which the old version of reality, deprived of attention, is losing vital substance to the new. The rebranding of Reading as R!-Town—updated, along with Wow-it’s-Slough! and Basingstoked!—was, we discover, part of a desperate attempt to sex up reality, to make the real as interesting as the Shine. But the only result has been to cheapen reality further. In UK-OK!—and in the world more generally—the attention of human beings has shifted to the virtual nonworld, and the real is fading fast. By now, you get the point: attention, in this novel, really matters. If there’s a hidden philosophical axiom underwriting The Real-Town Murders (if there is indeed a little god inside this particular Silenus-figure), it’s this: What you pay attention to, you make real. The book in fact begins with an act of attention, as Alma watches the security footage that shows the discovery of Kem’s body at the end of that assembly line. Notice is served: attention is what matters, to Alma, to Roberts, and to us.
A thousand SF writers have been ready to suggest that a wholly virtual future—a world stripped of the benefits of human attention—might turn out be threatening, or dangerous, or desolate, or corrupt. It takes Adam Roberts to show us that such a future would be terribly sad. Roberts is explicit about this:
Two neighbours, deep in the Shine for over a month now, were bodily out and about in their mesh-suits […] Overhead the sky was yawning into mauve, the first stars pipping into view. Alma’s block looked like a stilled chainsaw on its end. Something sad, somewhere. Something very sad, iceberg-sized and immovable and decanted into solidity from a thousand years of sorrow drizzling down from above. Was it hers, this sorrow? Surely not. (p. 24)
Of course, this “iceberg-sized” sorrow is partly Alma’s. She has sound personal reasons for feeling sad (Marguerite’s illness; her own isolation and fear). But the sadness Roberts is evoking here isn’t merely Alma’s. It’s a sadness that permeates the whole cosmos of The Real-Town Murders. Roberts seems to suggest that the ultimate victory of the online world—the victory of the Shine, with its massively supervening claims on our attention—is a kind of tragedy. (And, of course, it is: it is the tragedy of our moment, now, the moment at which, in case you need reminding, a bloviating orange-haired con-man is trying to start a nuclear war via Twitter.) Roberts isn’t going to let this tragedy pass unmarked. If humanity, in The Real-Town Murders, is a hermit-crab that has outgrown its shell, Roberts is going to make us look around our abandoned domicile. He’s going to compel us to put our attention back where it properly belongs: the streets of real town.
He does this the way a writer would: with his prose. This is Roberts’s description of the McA factory’s assembly line at work:
She watched the supply packtruc deliver raw materials, and toggled the p-o-v three-sixty as the materiel was unloaded and prepped. She watched old-school robots, fixed to the floor, pick up panels and slip them into the slots of various presses. Not a person in sight. Blocky machines spat smaller components down a slope, chrome nuggets tumbling like scree. She watched other robots, nothing more than metallic models of giant insect legs, bowing and lifting, moving with a series of rapid sweeps and abrupt stops like bodypopping dancers. Not a human being in sight. Rapidly the shape of the automobile assembled; a skeleton of rollbars and support with – her Alma froze the image, swung it about, zoomed in: nothing inside. Restart. The panels were welded zippily into place. The body of the car rolled down the line. It was a process familiar, traditional, as old as manufacture itself, and it went without a hitch. (p. 4)
This is a brilliantly paradoxical bit of writing: a lyrical account of a mechanical process. The prose, here, partakes of what Gerard Manley Hopkins called sprung rhythm, that bouncy metre in which spondees predominate. “[P]acktruc,” “old-school,” “machines spat smaller,” abrupt stops,” “zoomed in,” “Restart”—it all suggests the rhythmic swing and the jerky movements (“abrupt stops”) of preprogrammed machines. There is also a hidden joke, at the very end of this passage: if the process went off “without a hitch,” then the absent hitch, surely, is the Hitchcock who never got around to filming precisely this scene. This is very rich writing. In fact, its very richness is what compels attention. Real-Town might be Thriller-Town, all chases and fights. But it’s also real town, where the real still lives. And for Roberts, the real lives in language. This is why The Real-Town Murders repeatedly interrupts its action scenes and battles with bursts of beautiful perception. Towards the beginning, Alma notes “many starlings silhouetted against the sky like tea leaves left at the bottom of a pale china pot” (p. 20). Flying above the Channel, she sees a “cargoraft” on the open sea, “drawing a great bridal train of a wake behind it” (p. 71)—the word “drawing,” here, is laudably precise. More flying: “A pebbledash beach swung beneath them, and then a fuss of verdure” (p. 71)—that “fuss of verdure” is almost onomatopoeic; you can practically hear the grass hiss beneath you in the wind. Fleeing her pursuers in an underground car park, Alma crests “a DNA curl of concrete ramp” (p. 154).
Roberts’s lyricism extends, too, to his descriptions—more Eliot than Hitchcock—of R!-Town’s various outposts of abandonment and decay. He gives us “a decommissioned brick factory whose loading yard was littered with what looked like dusty avantgarde sculptural discards—a rusting truck cab, a stacked heap of metal casings, a large metal cube the colour of Marmite brailled all over with weathered pockmarks” (p. 10). Note, again, the sprung rhythm (“truck cab,” “stacked heap”). Note, especially, “brailled.” You can feel this world with your fingertips—which is, of course, entirely the point. Roberts’s prose, in attending so closely and so inventively to the felt textures of life, scatters water on the parched earth of the waste land. Welcome to the desert of the real? Not if Adam Roberts has anything to say about it.
The secret story of The Real-Town Murders is all about how Alma is forced to dispense with the virtual world and confront the textures of the real. When Alma, meeting Derp Throat, finds that she must switch off her feed to evade police detection, she is immediately overwhelmed by the realness of reality: “Perhaps she had spent too long plugged in […] The light had a different quality […] Seawater flaking and shoaling. Mist burning into gemlight. Abruptly she couldn’t look, and covered her eyes with her hands. Get a grip on yourself, lady” (p. 47). As the book progresses, Alma comes to appreciate the virtues of a no-filter sensorium. Here she is, seeing the jazzed-up Cliffs of Dover for the first time:
The White Cliffs of Dover had been sculpted all along their length into the gigantic visages of famous Brits—another attempt at injecting rebrand vibrancy into the declining real-world economy […] The real-world giant chalk faces reeked of desperation, people said. A desperate attempt to inject cool into a radically uncool Reality. Yet she had to concede, seeing them with her own eyes: there was something rather impressive about them. (p. 64)
The key phrase here (Think of that key) is “with her own eyes.” There is, after all, “something rather impressive” about reality—about the thing itself. The sculpted Cliffs are scorned by denizens of the Shine, who have seen much cooler stuff in their unreal kingdom. But Alma comes to understand that the real is worth attending to—that what we attend to is, in fact, where we truly live. When you see with your own eyes, you give life to what you see. This is a lesson for us, now, here. It’s impossible to imagine The Real-Town Murders appearing in any year other than 2017. Like the best SF, it isn’t about where we’re going; it’s about where we are: marooned on the steel beach, staring at our phones, endlessly invoking the dopamine hit of another tweet, another meme, another like, while around us, the real world dwindles. All of which is to say that The Real-Town Murders carries an urgent message—for those who are willing to hear.
But let’s put the hidden gods aside for now and look, once again, at the exterior of the Silenus-figure that is The Real-Town Murders. Do Alma and Marguerite solve the mystery of Adam Kem’s appearance in the boot of the machine-made car? They do—and brilliantly. (Hint: the first solution you’ll think of is wrong.) The journey is gripping—as gripping as North by Northwest, or The Birds, or (another reference-point here) The 39 Steps. Roberts is a tremendously expert plotter—which is another way of saying that he is a tremendously expert storyteller. The Real-Town Murders works as a story before it works as anything else, and this, I think, is what accounts for the unique pleasure to be found in reading it. The ideas, in Roberts’s work, are inseparable from the stories that tell them—just as the Silenus-figure is at once “made with flutes or pipes” (the materials of pleasure) and a container of hidden gods (the repositories of wisdom). The Real-Town Murders is, as Roberts intended, entertaining, ingenious, and readable. But it’s also a great deal more—if, that is, you care to take a closer look.