“Our corruption had proceeded in daily increments, a thousand tiny defeats of the soul until our core was rotten.”
The Red Men is one of those rare chimeras, a blend of science fiction and real-life, honest-to-goodness literature. Big ideas, futuristic imaginings, all wrapped up in the kind of attention to detail which makes English professors go weak at the knees. This kind of mutant is notoriously difficult to tame however; it’s all too easy to neglect the story in favour of linguistic flourishes; or vice versa, to feed the sci-fi beast and leave the prose stunted and ugly. Matthew De Abaitua seems to have mostly got it right.
The story takes as its centre narrator Nelson Millar, an employee of the mysterious Monad, a mysterious corporation apparently in the robotics business. Their key product is Dr Easy, an imposing robotic humanoid designed both to comfort the needy and soak up abuse from the angry. However, at the core of their business is the Cantor Intelligence, an exceedingly powerful AI, which has given them a remarkably novel method for creating digital representations of human beings. Following a series of psychological tests and questions – reminiscent of the tests administered in Blade Runner – the subject’s personal profile is delivered to Cantor who proceeds to imagine a replica of them within its CPU cycles, existing in an artificially constructed environment and able to communicate with the real world via several interfaces. These are the Red Men.
Nelson inducts his hapless friend, the slightly demented and near-unemployable Raymond Chase, into the halls of Monad. This turns out to be a mistake. Raymond’s unstable nature may have endeared him to the upper echelons of Monad’s management but it’s only a matter of time before the flaw inherent in the Red Men gets under his skin. You see, the Red Men aren’t perfect replicas, how could they be given that they are simply simulations based on psychological profiles? Rather they are distilled versions of ourselves embodying the extremes, the best and worst of ourselves. High levels of creativity and ambition, coupled with selfishness, greed and envy of their real-world counterparts mean it’s only a matter of time before something goes wrong.
The Red Men is a book of two parts. The first deals mainly with Chase and his involvement in the Red Men’s first tragic encroachment into the physical world of their creators via the medium of the Dr Easy bodies. The second takes a broader look, focussing on Millar’s attempted simulation of an entire town, the origins of Monad and its counterpart/rival/alter-ego known as Dyad, and the ultimate consequences of reaching for too much power. However, this makes it sound all too simplistic. De Abaitua’s style is hallucinatory to say the least. From a humble, almost urbane, opening The Red Men soon picks up pace and starts spitting out ideas faster than you can hope to process them. The result is a warped, dreamlike novel in which reality and simulation intertwine leaving you wondering whether the author has just played a massive joke on you.
For the vast majority of the book this works fantastically well. It’s not a book to be enjoyed when tired or intoxicated, it requires all your mental faculties, but it’s worth saving quality time for it. It contains some wonderful turns of phrase and an attention to detail which can be almost unnerving. Consider the following, a brief description of smoking weed of which Burroughs himself would have been envious:
“He was smoking his joint now and it was having no effect upon him. The tetrahydrocannabinol could not compete with the charged juice running through his axons and synapses, it could not insinuate itself into the quantum events operating in the microtubules of each and every one of his twenty-three billion neurons, the chorus of tiny mysteries that sang into existence the strange consciousness of Raymond Chase.”
It’s just beautiful, isn’t it? Art and science happily frolicking together. Unfortunately De Abaitua sometimes gets too ambitious and the pacing suffers for it. The second half of The Red Men suffers in particular, often seeming either disjointed or out of step with the rest of the story. However I’ll be more than willing to admit that by that point in the book I may simply have been suffering from literary fatigue or, more likely, from the effects of heavy doses of cold and bronchitis medication. Try it for yourself.
The Red Men is nothing if not ambitious. It takes on themes as wide-ranging as social control, 21st century economics, the consequences of hierarchical power structures, theories of mind and the battle between spiritual and materialistic worldviews. The list of literary comparisons to be made is endless, go search other reviews for some of them but seeing as this is primarily a sci-fi blog I’ll stick with good old JG Ballard. It’s not an easy read by any means but it’s certainly rewarding if you’re willing to put in the effort.