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Source: (consider it) Thread: May Book Group: After Atlas by Emma Newman
Jane R
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The chosen book for May is After Atlas by Emma Newman, a mystery/detective story set in a dystopian near-future. It should be quite easy to get hold of; it is currently in print and also available as an ebook.

It is linked to Emma's novel Planetfall which was published in
2015, but you don't have to read Planetfall to understand this one.


Discussion will begin on or around 20th May.

[ 30. April 2017, 20:59: Message edited by: Jane R ]

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Brenda Clough
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I have my copy right here! Alas, I only hope I have time to read it.

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Sarasa
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I shall be donwloading this shortly, so I'm in.

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andras
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And me too!

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Adrian Plass

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Jane R
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Just heard that After Atlas has made the shortlist for this year's Arthur C. Clarke award.

So we can all now feel smug because we heard about it before it was famous [Biased]

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Jane R
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*bump* Anybody else joining in with this? There's still time before the discussion kicks off...
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Curiosity killed ...

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It's on my Kindle to read, but that's no guarantee I'll read it by the 20th.

(We have read a couple of other things that were then nominated for prizes shortly after we picked them.)

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Brenda Clough
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(sigh) Read first chapter. Gloomy. Read second chapter. Tough sledding. We shall see...

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andras
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Half way through. Sympathy with the hero currently pretty low, but we shall see...

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Adrian Plass

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Brenda Clough
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Good God, you mean it does not pick up even half way through? I don't know if I can handle that much dystopian gloom.

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gustava
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I finished reading it and enjoyed it (dystopian as it was)...
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andras
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quote:
Originally posted by Brenda Clough:
Good God, you mean it does not pick up even half way through? I don't know if I can handle that much dystopian gloom.

The challenge that the writer has set herself is an interesting one: what sort of detective story can you have in a world in which everyone's transactions are monitored and everyone is being identifiably surveilled virtually all the time?

How many famous detective yarns would work if you could see what all the major characters were up to all the time.

I would draw to your attention the curious incident of the dog in the night-time. You can see it on the CCTV here. Doesn't work, does it!

By about 60% of the way through I suspect that the writer has actually bottled out of that challenge somewhat. But I may be wrong; I'll know soon enough.

I don't mind dystopian per se - Huxley is brilliant, for instance - but this book is certainly no Brave New World.

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Adrian Plass

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Brenda Clough
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It is the great difficulty that high school teachers have, trying to teach Romeo & Juliet. Inevitably some kid will ask, "But why didn't she text him? 'Faking death, ttyl' is all it would take."

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Jane R
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My daughter is doing Romeo and Juliet at school and we have agreed the following:

1. Romeo is Not Worth Losing Your Head Over - goes to a party in love with one girl, comes back in love with another? Puh-leeze.

2. Juliet's plan to fake her own death so she can run away with Romeo is unnecessarily complicated. Why didn't she just run away?

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Brenda Clough
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There is also the point that Juliet is barely 14 years old. Is there a 14-year-old alive who can make a good decision in situations like this?

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Sarasa
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To get back to After Atlas . I'm about a third of the way through and after not enjoying the beginning much am liking it much mroe now it's turned into a detective story.

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Jane R
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Brenda:
quote:
There is also the point that Juliet is barely 14 years old. Is there a 14-year-old alive who can make a good decision in situations like this?
...well, my daughter is currently in her 14th year, just like Juliet. However, she has not been brought up to think of herself as grown-up and ready for marriage at 14*. And modern girls have a few more aspirations than merely 'marriage to the first reasonably presentable man who expresses an interest'.

[with apologies to Sarasa for continuing the tangent, I should be setting a better example]

*The age of consent for girls was 12 in the 16th century, hence Juliet's comments about being over the hill.

[ 15. May 2017, 18:21: Message edited by: Jane R ]

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Lamb Chopped
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quote:
Originally posted by Brenda Clough:
It is the great difficulty that high school teachers have, trying to teach Romeo & Juliet. Inevitably some kid will ask, "But why didn't she text him? 'Faking death, ttyl' is all it would take."

Love it, must quote to son who is practicing that scene right now.

The problem (ostensibly) with simply running away is that her folks would have looked for her. I seriously doubt a 14 yo girl of noble background in those days would have made it very far. A peasant, now...

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Brenda Clough
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There is also the point that neither of them could earn a living; what could they live on and where could they go?

Back to After Atlas! I will read another chapter.

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Curiosity killed ...

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One of the times I was teaching R&J to a small group when we got to Juliet's plan one of the boys commented that she'd be stuffed if she was cremated (which showed that he was following rather more than I thought he had been).

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Brenda Clough
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Actually any modern funerary practice (embalming, etc.) would be her doom.

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Jane R
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Brenda:
quote:
There is also the point that neither of them could earn a living; what could they live on and where could they go?
Well, they'd have the same difficulty with the faking death and THEN running away scenario. Plus, we're back to the old 'teenagers not brilliant at forward planning' problem.

Romeo is quite a nifty duellist; he could probably have got a job as one of the Duke of Milan's heavies. Or similar.

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andras
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So far the story-line is about as predictable as an episode of Midsomer Murders.

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Adrian Plass

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Brenda Clough
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Three chapters of worldbuilding, scene setting and undifferentiated angst, and finally the conflict is here, yay.

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andras
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Well, finished it. Thoughts tomorrow!

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Adrian Plass

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andras
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Thinking about it, and not wanting to create spoilers, I'll confine myself for the moment to saying that I felt very much let down by the ending. And I still didn't care much for the hero!

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Adrian Plass

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Jane R
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Well, it's the 20th May so anyone still reading this thread should be aware they may encounter spoilers from now onwards.

I'm not sure anyone else actually finished the book apart from you, andras, so this is going to be a short discussion. Do you want me to post questions or do you just want to say what you thought about it?

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Sarasa
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I've just finished it too. Still pondering what to make of it.

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Jane R
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OK, questions (but feel free to say anything else that occurs to you):

1. How did you feel about the protagonist? Do you find him a sympathetic character?

2. Did you think the murder story worked, or was it too obvious whodunnit?

3. What did you think of the Circle's ideals? Do you think they were right to reject technology and try to live simply? What about their decision to take part in the Atlas 2 project?

4. Do you think this vision of a future society is plausible?

5. What do you think of the ending?

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Sarasa
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1. How did you feel about the protagonist? Do you find him a sympathetic character?
I thought Carlos was one of the real weak things about this story. I didn’t feel anything for him much, although when he got cyber-kidnapped by Gabor I was a bit shocked and skip read the next few pages as I didn’t want anything really awful to happen to him.

2. Did you think the murder story worked, or was it too obvious whodunnit?
Maybe it was the skip reading but who was Arlington working for? I liked the idea of a murder story set in a future where it is easy to track down what people are doing, but I thought it could have worked just as well or maybe better set in the present day.

3. What did you think of the Circle's ideals? Do you think they were right to reject technology and try to live simply? What about their decision to take part in the Atlas 2 project?
I liked the ideas and refusing to be chipped seemed like a very good idea, but I thought Newman hadn’t really got a grip on what she wanted them to represent. The religious details were rather sketchy. I know Carlos had run away but I thought he might have had a bit more understanding that he would pass on to the reader about their beliefs. Was it supposed to be a mix of Christianity and Islam?

4. Do you think this vision of a future society is plausible?
I thought it was very plausible, well at least the politics, with England separate from Europe and the world being run by big business. As for the technology I’m not so sure, but the way we are all more and more dependent on smart devices it could happen

5. What do you think of the ending?
I thought Newman was setting up the scenario for the next book, Detectives in space. It did seem a bit final about Earth, and maybe if she does write more she’ll regret blowing it up.

To my mind there was something off with the pacing of the book. The first few chapters were confusing, then it settled into being a Country House murder mystery, then it gathered pace in the last fifth with the visit to the Circle. I didn’t want to give up reading it, but it was far from being a gripping page turner.

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Brenda Clough
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Has anyone read the first book (I forget the title) which I gather focused around the Atlas project? A second book in a series is always problematic to begin on.

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andras
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It really is an odd book, and not I think a very good one.

Let's forget the SF stuff for a moment. We then have a bog-standard murder mystery in which:

(i) A famous man has apparently been murdered, and a detective is assigned to find the murderer.

(ii) Evidence emerges which seems to prove that this was suicide and not murder.

(iii) The original prime suspect is found dead, having himself apparently committed suicide.

(iv) Despite his doubts, the detective is taken off the case by his superiors and the matter is closed.

(v) There is a final twist which reveals the truth.

That basically is what we have here, once the SF is subtracted. Trite and unimaginative, I'd say, especially as the second apparent suicide is left, so to speak, hanging!

What about the SF? Bits read horribly plausibly, especially the treating of stateless persons as indentured labour. Let's hope that Trump, May and a few other nasty characters don't decide to adopt this. The printed food has a nasty whiff of a possible future about it too.

And the basic premise, that someone claims to have found God's 'co-ordinates' and has set off there in a spaceship with a whole ark of others, leaving behind a canister containing the details of where they've gone? Well, I wouldn't put it past the imagination of certain of the nuttier sects - yes, America, I'm looking at you - but as the prime plot-driver, it seems woefully inadequate.

The relationship with Dee? Weak, weak, weak, though perhaps this is because I haven't read the first book in the series. Never will, now!

Did the Dartmoor scenes read as if the author had ever actually been there? No, they didn't. Mind you, the London scenes didn't either. And the switch at the end from ho-hum country-house murder mystery to 1950s Amazing Science Fiction was crass.

Hey ho, there's a few hours of my life I'll never get back! Arthur C Clarke would never have written such tripe.

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Adrian Plass

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Sarasa
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Is Newman British or American? A lot of it sounded like an American who didn't know that much about the UK, some of the dialogue by locals didn't sound convincing and the spelling in my copy was American, but her website says she lives in Somerset.
Yes I agree the relationship with Dee was dire as I thought was most of the characterisation. I didn't discover what was so charismatic about Alejandro - and would someone with such strong religious beliefs ever commit sucicide no matter what had happened?

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Jane R
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I've met Emma Newman; she's definitely British. I thought the Americanisms were just part of her imagined future culture. Americanized spelling means nothing nowadays; many British-based publishers are using American spellings for books published on this side of the pond (and it annoys me too, when I notice it).

Agree with andras that the murder mystery isn't particularly gripping - though I don't mind mysteries where the culprit is fairly obvious as long as the characters are interesting. I can never work out who the murderer is in Agatha Christie (it's easier in Sayers' books).

Sarasa:
quote:
I thought Newman hadn’t really got a grip on what she wanted them to represent. The religious details were rather sketchy. I know Carlos had run away but I thought he might have had a bit more understanding that he would pass on to the reader about their beliefs. Was it supposed to be a mix of Christianity and Islam?
It seems to me that she's writing about religion as an outsider who doesn't know much about it and is trying not to offend anyone - perhaps that's why she doesn't identify the religion of the Circle. Jasper Fforde's Global Standard Deity, maybe...

It seemed odd to me that Carlos wasn't more bitter about the Circle. He got dragged there against his will as a small child, they effectively murdered his only friend (Teddy), he ran away as an adolescent, was sexually abused and then enslaved. He doesn't really have a choice about investigating the murder, but he seems to forgive them very easily and takes the news that they've effectively abandoned their principles in his stride. Why? How?

The first book in the series ( Planetfall ) is about the people who left Earth on Atlas 1 and what happened to them when they got to their destination (hint: not what they were expecting). It has a different protagonist (who is not Carlos's mother; she appears as a minor character). If you didn't like this one you probably wouldn't like Planetfall either.

I thought the future politics was horribly plausible too, especially the idea of all the rich people using the last of the Earth's resources on building spaceships so they can go and find another planet to trash. The technology also sounded plausible; she's extrapolated from what we can do now, but not very far.

What I couldn't work out was whether the author approved of Carmen abandoning her child and husband to go off on the first Atlas. On the one hand, Carlos had a horrible life afterwards; on the other, his father was there and Carmen might reasonably expect his father to look after him. If the situations had been reversed - if Carlos's father had gone on Atlas and his mother had stayed behind with him and become incapable of looking after him - I bet she'd still have been blamed for what happened. Maybe that's the point.

I still think it's an interesting book - most SF books about interplanetary travel focus on people who leave Earth and go somewhere else. I don't think I've read any others about what happens to the people who are *ahem* Left Behind, unless you count Andre Norton's Star Rangers - and there the focus is on the people who came back to Earth, not on the ones who stayed.

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Sarasa
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I relsied after I wrote about the Americanisms that that was the culture that Carlos came from (sort of) and therefore the spellings were understandable. It was just the Newman seemed not to capture the British vocie very well, but again by whatever date this book is set there probably isn't a 'British vocie' anymore.
Although I was critical I don't think I disliked it as much as Andras did, I like country house murder mysteries after all. I just get annoyed when I'm not convinced by other people's religious beliefs in stories and where the author has to tell you how charismatic someone is, without actually showing it.

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andras
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I like Sayers too, and Christie dramatises well though I don't enjoy reading her; I suppose it's her style.

But surely the requirements of a murder mystery are that there is a murder and that it is solved. The two apparent murders here aren't, just lost in the rather lackadaisical plotting. In fact I rather got the feeling at the end that the author was as bored by it as I was.

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Adrian Plass

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Jane R
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Ah, you haven't read as many murder mysteries as I have... it's quite fashionable nowadays for the detective to find out The Truth About The Murder and then either let the murderer off because s/he is One of Us*, or find that they haven't enough evidence to prosecute (though that never seemed to stop Hercule Poirot). To be fair, in these circumstances (nuclear bombs obliterating most of Western Europe and North America) I think the characters do have some excuse for losing interest in the question of who murdered whom.

*or had a difficult childhood, or was just trying to protect someone else, or it was an accident, no, seriously, you CAN stab someone fourteen times by accident...

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andras
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quote:
Originally posted by Jane R:
Ah, you haven't read as many murder mysteries as I have... it's quite fashionable nowadays for the detective to find out The Truth About The Murder and then either let the murderer off because s/he is One of Us*, or find that they haven't enough evidence to prosecute (though that never seemed to stop Hercule Poirot). To be fair, in these circumstances (nuclear bombs obliterating most of Western Europe and North America) I think the characters do have some excuse for losing interest in the question of who murdered whom.

*or had a difficult childhood, or was just trying to protect someone else, or it was an accident, no, seriously, you CAN stab someone fourteen times by accident...

Letting the murderer off happens in Sherlock Holmes too, so it's hardly a modern idea. But at least there we know whodunit!

Do we ever find out who faked Theo's suicide? If so I don't remember who it was nor what happened to them.

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Adrian Plass

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Sarasa
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I think the whole plot went wrong when Carlos discovered that Theo had spy cameras in the suite. Before then I was assuming it was goiing to be Klein that had done the murder, somehow faking the being drugged bit. One of the problems was that we only knew about Theo from other people so motives etc were very filtered. If you found someone you idolised had committed suicide would chopping up thier body be your first reaction?

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andras
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quote:
Originally posted by Sarasa:
I think the whole plot went wrong when Carlos discovered that Theo had spy cameras in the suite. Before then I was assuming it was goiing to be Klein that had done the murder, somehow faking the being drugged bit. One of the problems was that we only knew about Theo from other people so motives etc were very filtered. If you found someone you idolised had committed suicide would chopping up thier body be your first reaction?

Well no, it wouldn't. And he did it with an axe which, inconveniently, was somewhere in the hotel grounds. How did he even know it was out there?

And - I may have the plot awry here - I don't think he showed up on the cameras that would certainly have been in the reception area as he went to fetch it and then came back, this time with the gardener's little hatchet presumably concealed in his trousers.

Slightly amusing that Carlos' digital assistant is called Tia, which of course is Spanish for Aunt. Is this meant to be a reference to the terrifying 'aunts' in The Handmaid's Tale?

Detective stories need to be very tightly plotted - Robert van Gulik used to lay out a map of the entire town in his Judge Dee Mysteries and actually walk the characters round it so he could see where everyone was at any given moment as the plot progressed.

On the other hand, the dystopia bit works much better, though even that has its weaknesses. And the SF Fly off to meet God bit at the end strikes me as fatuous.

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Adrian Plass

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Brenda Clough
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There is also a larger problem with this whole eye in the sky surveillance thing. Even if you assume that computers can handle much of the work, there have to be human beings somewhere with the job of looking at these videos. Many, many, many human beings, because remember that everybody is being watched everywhere so there's masses of data.
99.99% of everything recorded is of no interest to anybody. Think if they were recording you: eating pizza, sending an email, folding laundry, watching TV, pulling weeds, all of no use except as a sleep aid. It takes a human intelligence to pick out that .01% of data that is useable, that one person who is a terrorist or who is saying something actionable.

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Jane R
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Sarasa:
quote:
Maybe it was the skip reading but who was Arlington working for?
Sorry, missed answering this. I think it was explicitly stated somewhere that she was working for the American gov-corp - maybe that was a bit you skipped?

I don't think the solution to Theo's death was explicitly stated anywhere - perhaps because the author lost interest in that sub-plot, as andras suggests. Rereading it, I think it's meant to be a suicide, with perhaps the suggestion that Arlington found him before anyone else and interfered with the crime scene. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar...

Brenda:
quote:
There is also a larger problem with this whole eye in the sky surveillance thing. Even if you assume that computers can handle much of the work, there have to be human beings somewhere with the job of looking at these videos. Many, many, many human beings, because remember that everybody is being watched everywhere so there's masses of data.
You're right. They had the same problem on Babylon 5, I seem to recall, and they solved it by having a bunch of monks looking at the camera feeds... no sign of monks in Newman's world (unless you count Theo).

You get an inkling of the scale of the problem when Carlos is trying to find the missing data from Alejandro's chip. Presumably the law enforcement officers only bother to look at all this data after a crime has been committed...

[ 24. May 2017, 08:38: Message edited by: Jane R ]

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andras
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But if Theo had indeed killed himself, then why did his apparent suicide note say that he'd done so because he'd murdered Alejandro?

At this point further speculation becomes useless, because the author had totally lost focus on this part of the story. But you can't do that if you're writing crime fiction! All right, I know there are holes even in some of the Sherlock Holmes stories, but this isn't a hole, it's a gaping chasm.

And this book is in the running for a major award??? Perhaps it's time for me to start writing SF instead of historical novels!

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God's on holiday.
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Adrian Plass

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Jane R
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Because he was still trying to cover up the fact that Alejandro had committed suicide? I dunno. I just assumed that if Newman *had* meant Theo's death to be a murder cleverly arranged to look like a suicide, the pathologist would have found some evidence that she would have conveyed to Carlos in her "story".

It spoils the symmetry though: Alejandro's death was a suicide arranged to look like a murder, Theo's death *ought* to be a murder arranged to look like a suicide. Maybe Arlington killed him after all (she'd be my number one suspect, if he was murdered).

[ 24. May 2017, 09:27: Message edited by: Jane R ]

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andras
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Ah, the usefulness of Christie's favourite plot device of calling all the suspects / witnesses together so that we can understand their involvement in the crime, and so that all ambiguities can be cleared up.

But that demands a higher grade of plotting skills than are on display here.

Don't get me wrong, there's a lot more to a good novel than the plot, and some brilliant ones have almost no plot at all - I instance The Small House at Allington as an example - but a roman policier needs more authorial care than this was given.

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God's on holiday.
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Adrian Plass

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Sarasa
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I wonder if Newman was having the same problem as Garner in Boneland that we discussed the other month and actually was trying to force together two ideas. A dystopian future where a slave is being sold to the highest bidder for his skills and how he gets out of it (with a load of stuff about the advance of technology on the side) and a traditional country house murder story set more or less now, again looking at how new technology changes that genre. One or other would have been an interesting book if she had paid it full attention.

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Brenda Clough
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There is a deplorable trend for dystopias these days, which (please God) has to break sometime. This one fits right into the trend.

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andras
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quote:
Originally posted by Brenda Clough:
There is a deplorable trend for dystopias these days, which (please God) has to break sometime. This one fits right into the trend.

Some dystopias seem quite jolly, at least for those of limited sensibility. A lot of people I know would have been very happy in Huxley's Brave New World - no unemployment, mood-altering drugs not only available but promoted by the government, vacuous entertainment on tap, and guilt-free sex for everyone.

As a writer I've had quite a bit of fun recently doing the opposite, and letting Ecgfrith - the 7th century King of Northumbria - muse aloud about the golden age in which he lives, with its fine jewels, beautiful manuscripts, great poetry and the like. The Dark Ages are in the eye of the beholder, it seems.

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Adrian Plass

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Brenda Clough
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And it depends on where you are in that society. I bet your king's carls and serfs weren't so jolly, breaking the sod with shovels, eating porridge and wearing sheepskins.
The notion that a just and happy society means justice and happiness for -all- is entirely modern. Democracy in ancient Athens was for the very few. Even the US Bill of Rights only mandated them for white men of property; if you were colored or a woman you were SOL.
As we can see in this book, which shows that yes, those rights are fungible -- a shift in governance and society can take them right away.

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andras
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quote:
Originally posted by Brenda Clough:
And it depends on where you are in that society. I bet your king's carls and serfs weren't so jolly, breaking the sod with shovels, eating porridge and wearing sheepskins.
The notion that a just and happy society means justice and happiness for -all- is entirely modern. Democracy in ancient Athens was for the very few. Even the US Bill of Rights only mandated them for white men of property; if you were colored or a woman you were SOL.
As we can see in this book, which shows that yes, those rights are fungible -- a shift in governance and society can take them right away.

The very faint beginnings of an urban middle class are starting to show by the Seventh Century, but yes, for most people life could indeed be pretty unpleasant. And especially for women, who were highly likely to be married off at an early age, and probably to die in childbirth not too long afterwards.

The Church, of course, offered blessed relief both from the uncertainties of child-bearing and from the imminent danger of starvation after a poor harvest, so it's no surprise that a religious vocation could be a life-saver in many ways - so much so that St Cuthbert gets pretty exercised about those who join monasteries only for the 'easy life' that they offered. All things, I suppose, are relative.

As Huxley wisely pointed out, The Right To Have A Good Time is seen as the most important right of all by an awful lot of people. Not much sign of that in After Atlas, unless you were one of the fortunate few who went to proper supermarkets and got greeted there by a glass of champers!

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God's on holiday.
(Why borrow a cat?)
Adrian Plass

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