Vicarious is the story of two Dystopias posing as Utopias.
Asher Reinhart is born at age 10, after spending the first ten years in a cryogenic chamber acquiring the learning that will help him through life. The setting is a haven called High Earth, the only habitable portion of land left on earth in the 23rd century after a flood destroyed the earth and a war, brought on by a techno-revolution, wiped out nearly all the humanity in the solar system.
In this new world, technology has made life so full of technological developments that one need never leave one’s smart dwelling. Not even for exercise, and certainly not to earn a living. It might seem like a dream-come-true for some, but within it, one gets an uneasy feeling as of a nightmare waiting to unfold.
In this world, digital entertainment, in terms of virtual reality, is everything. The most popular show is Ignis: Live, a reality show where human beings living on an interstellar ark are made to do extreme things, unaware that they are being filmed through tens of thousands of tiny advanced cameras hidden all over the ark.
When Asher is born, the first visuals he sees on the walls of his dwelling are those of Mission, a young girl, as old as him. Asher begins to watch Mission, to follow her life. He comes to know that Mission’s birth was as a result of what her Birthmother calls a “freak accident” while all the other births on Ignis are a result of the Birthmothers being assigned to give birth by the Collective.
The Collective is the force to fear. Falling in love and procreating are taboo, unless done with the permission of the Collective with the assigned person. Those caught breaking the rule are punished by being expelled into the void of space. Mission’s Birthmother hides her away under the floorboards because hers wasn’t an assigned birth.
Fifteen years later, 25-year-old Mission is chosen to be a BirthMother, and assigned to procreate with a member of the Collective, a man in his forties. For the 50th anniversary of the show, Craig Helix, the develop, decides to endanger Mission's life in order to boost show ratings. Asher, who is Chief Director of Content for the show, cannot get over his feelings for Mission, who is learning the perils of disobeying the Collective. Hé decides to influence the show. It is an action that has unimaginable consequences for both of them.
Slowly the structure and hierarchy of this new world becomes apparent to us. The people of Ignis think that the ark is on its way to a distant planet. Until they get there, resources must be optimised, and so the population must be kept in check. Only 10000 people to ensure that there is no strain on the resources.
I don’t usually read sci-fi, and this one took some getting used to.
The viewpoint shifts seamlessly from Asher’s first person past tense to Mission’s third person past tense account. The choice of perspective is appropriate, given that Asher is watching her, while she has no idea that she and her fellow residents are being watched.
There is a streak of rebellion in Mission, in complete contrast to Asher, who falls in line with the rules of his new world without questioning it. At least in the beginning.
Still I liked Asher as a character far more than Mission. I liked Mission only when she declaimed, Countless perfect-looking people wandering aimlessly around in a perfect city in a perfect world. I’d rather have been under the floor.
Both are very emotional, and complete misfits in the world they find themselves in.
A projected Utopia, Ignis is decidedly dystopian from the viewpoint of Mission, who lives it. High Earth is no different. On High Earth, residents are called to enjoy the fruits of technology and entertainment without questioning anything. Those that do are sent to the terrible outskirts.
I loved the author’s worldbuilding. As a world, the details are interesting and intriguing. The amount of detail that the author has put into conjuring up this world is astounding.
On High Earth, the invention of the molecular re-assembly has made war, struggle, the need for family, exploration, and so much more obsolete. Technology enables selective memories to be wiped out. Data is the currency. Family is an outdated concept. Residents spend their early formative years in a synth-womb from which they emerge at age 10 or later, with an artificial intelligence, VORA, for company.
On Ignis, food is slop made of blended bugs and flora. Birthmothers must mate with the partner selected for them.
There was just one error. In Chapter 20, Virgil suddenly turned into Virgo.
Beneath it all, there are lessons that we can learn. Vicarious is a morality tale that warns us about the perils of humans attempting to play God, about the over-reliance on technology and a call to simplicity, about the need to be ourselves in a world in which it is so easy to pretend to be something else and about the beauty of the earth and the significance of humanity amid the chaos. This was a worthwhile read in the pandemic.
(I read this book through NetGalley. Thank you to the author, the publisher and NetGalley)