This review is part of my judging effort for SPSFC2. For a little intro to the whole thing and an explanation of my judging style, see this practice review.
Today I’m here to have a quick chat about Clarity: A Young Adult Dystopian Thriller, Clarity Chronicles, Book 1 by J Lynn Hicks.
I hadn’t actually considered this a young adult story, although now I see it self-described as such and think about the intro, I guess it is a bit. Who am I to judge? We open on our protagonist Liberty, aka. Libby, a happy-go-lucky artistic type whose overbearing fashion designer mother wants her to follow in her footsteps. Liberty is attending a college of some kind and having moderate to industrial-strength angst about this hunky boy she’s keen on. Okay, it’s young adult fiction. Don’t care.
This solid character setup immediately takes a creepy turn when we find out that basically nothing is what it seems. The overwhelming majority of the population is installed with “personal reality”, PR, an extreme form of augmented reality that affects sight, taste, and to a certain degree touch to basically overwrite everything in the community’s immediate environment with a utopian world of peace, plenty and beauty. The second that system switches off, the world is revealed as grimy, rotten, falling-apart and slowly bleaching itself to death under a burning sun and degenerating atmosphere.
Told from the first-person perspective of Liberty, we watch as she is brought into the world of “Clarity” by her tech-activist father and begins to realise that living without illusions is really fucking hard, actually. Especially when almost everyone else prefers the illusion to reality, and even a lot of the people with Clarity (like the cops, and assorted grifters) are not on board with upsetting the sheeple.
There’s more to it, and the story unfolds chapter by chapter in intriguing, often-disgusting, increasingly-complex ways. The history and the fate of the world, the shady organisations behind the scenes taking advantage of the illusion-wrapped livestock, and the very close-to-home question of how we got there from here – all present themselves as part of Liberty’s harrowing journey of discovery.
The tech of PR is largely not stated in much detail, but is understood to be implanted and centrally controlled by way of a network coverage type deal. You don’t really need to know how it works, just what it does. I was reminded of the cyberpunk book ARvekt, which also handled an all-pervasive augmented-reality culture and what happens when you switch off the integrated headset. Clarity shows this contrast really well, and the human element of willing self-delusion is perfectly captured.
Ignorance is not knowing what Cypher is really eating.
The story is riddled with tiny moments that allow the reader to follow a thread in their own imaginations, and what the implications are for the PR swaddled world. “Probably a peep” was a perfect and horrible little moment like that. When everybody else is seeing another world entirely, the potential for abuse can be communal or intimate. Another one was Graceon, the barely-mentioned retirement village where I am willing to bet old people are Soylent Green’d.
Of course, there was a certain amount of confusion for me, with the PR mechanic. Some people were completely outside of PR, Clarity-native, and they seemed to be invisible to the people in PR, but not always? Then there were some who could see in Clarity, but could also alter their appearances in PR and take part in everyday PR life. Did Liberty wind up looking like she was talking to herself when she talked with Clarity folks, or was she also projecting a non-crazy avatar sometimes? Seems like she wasn’t, a lot of the time. The rules were a bit difficult to follow, and who was visible and audible to whom was a bit muddled. That could be on me as much as Hicks, though.
Also I would have expected a lot more abuse from the Clarity-native cops, but that’s just me. I sort of got the idea, in the lieutenant’s interaction with Liberty, that they had become very complacent and lazy when dealing with the PR sheeple because the civilians didn’t really think, didn’t do anything outside the lines, and were basically completely open and vulnerable to authorities who could literally see through them. But I would have expected worse. And the existence of have-nots on the other side of the river, I would have expected to be a bigger deal.
I am not certain how even PR managed to maintain an illusion of safety and health, furthermore, when everything was broken and falling apart. There were references to minimal health facilities and minimal need for them, but people would forever be cutting themselves on jagged and rusty shit, falling off busted furniture or out of houses, and let’s not even start on the “food”. How people weren’t dropping like flies is a bit of a mystery.
Anyway, it was all very cool.
None. No sex in this one, and only the lightest hint of romance. It’s not really a needed part of this story anyway, although the groundwork was all nicely set and I imagine it will become more focal in later stories. Clarity gets a Trinity getting on a motorbike out of a possible hilariously photoshopped Trinity getting on a motorbike and showing her massive curvaceous badonkadonk on the sex-o-meter.
Again, nothing much in the violence stakes although there was plenty of action, and a lot of psychological violence and grossness – mainly centred around disgusting food. Still, this wasn’t a gory one. Half a quivering flesh-gobbet out of a possible five, although I suppose half a gobbet is still really a gobbet, just a smaller gobbet than usual. Makes you think.
Plenty of action on the WTF-o-meter in this one, as one would expect with a story based in an augmented-reality-hidden dystopia. Aside from the questions of mechanics and consistency, the very idea of an artificially imposed fake reality to keep people from self-destructing (or tearing down the authorities who doomed them) over climate collapse is … mmm, what a perfect concept. A narwhal in VR goggles swimming with crocodiles in VR goggles out of a possible human in VR goggles swimming with crocodiles that are not wearing VR goggles. Also there’s a narwhal there.
My Final Verdict
Great story, really well told and with highly enjoyable imagination and visuals. Four stars!