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The Red Men by Matthew De Abaitua

01/11/2009. Contributed by Pauline Morgan

Buy The Red Men in the USA - or Buy The Red Men in the UK

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pub: Snowbooks. 377 page enlarged paperback. Price: 7.99 (UK), $14.99 (US). ISBN: 978-1-905005-58-1.

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This was one of the novels short-listed for the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 2007 and is Matthew De Abaitua's debut novel. New writers are always told to begin a novel or a story with a powerful, attention grabbing opening. 'The Red Men' has exactly that. The start of the novel manages to combine domesticity, thus immediately showing the relationship between the narrator, Nelson Millar, and his young daughter, with the action taking place on the street outside. This also serves to introduce one of the SF elements, a robot psychological councillor referred to as Dr Easy and a mystery which is returned to later.

A big problem with a first person narrative is that nothing that does not happen to the narrator cannot easily be shown. Abaitua neatly gets round this problem by giving Nelson a friend with an eidetic memory. His friend, Raymond, can be extremely wearing as he insists on relating the things that happen to him, word for word, second by second - even his sexual encounters.

Nelson works for Monad, a software company that has developed the concept of the Red Men. These are virtual doppelgangers which are constructed by in-depth personality analysis to make the same decisions as the original person would. The idea is that your red man can attend a video conference instead of you so that you can get on with other things. It is an attempt to be in two places at once. The next step is to create red men for every person in a small Lancashire town. When it is complete, the idea is to use the virtual town to test out political ideas such as the effects of introducing particular pieces of legislation before getting the backlash from real communities. Naturally, there are flaws in this model such as the inability to create red men of children. Nevertheless, the company gets the go ahead for the project and Nelson is sent to collect data and construct the red men within a six month deadline.

There are a number of other plot strands woven together. Monad decides that poets will enhance their sales force so Raymond and his latest girlfriend, Florence, get hired by them, allowing the reader access to other aspects of the company. One of the executives agrees to allow her red man to be downloaded into a Dr Easy so that she can literally be in two places at once. There is a scheme where executives can have their own designer pig to provide spare parts should they need them. And a murder plot.

This is a very ambitious first novel with innovative ideas. Not all the ingredients mesh together perfectly but it is a very creditable attempt.

Pauline Morgan

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This book has 5 votes in the sci-fi charts

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