I recently found out I actually really like war stories. It took me a while to admit it, but the utter uselessness and terror of war is a theme I can’t get enough of. Add a mixture of dystopia or sci-fi and you can bet I’m interested. This was how I found If Then, a book by Matthew De Abaitua that tells the story of a small town called Lewes in our distant future. Society has collapsed during something called The Seizure and in Britain an organization named The Institute has taken over a small town in the countryside. The people living in this town have all agreed to become part of The Process, which means that they have an implant in the back of their neck that collects data on all of their feels, wants and desires. The data is recorded and sent back to The Process and in return The Process makes sure these people are protected and get what they need. Basically these people’s lives are driven by The Process’ algorithms that determines what they need and when they need it.
So far so good. In the story we follow James and Ruth. James is the appointed bailiff of the town, which means that his implant can connect immediately to The Process and control him. He gets a really cool sounding armor (which to my sounded like The Iron Giant, but then more sleek) which he uses to evict people from the town who are a danger to the status quo. Ruth is his wife and she’s having some issues dealing with her husband as the bailiff and with The Process in general. Then one day James finds a soldier called Hector caught on barbed wire. Although Hector looked like a human being, he was made by The Process and sent to Lewes and it’s up to James to find out why.
The set up of the story is not too complicated if you read the book well. De Abaitua introduces The Process and The Institute well enough without spelling everything out. He makes sure everything retains an aura of mystery that will make you want to keep on reading. The start of the book is a good look at ‘realistic’ dystopian living and shows the human emotions and interactions in a small town that is controlled by a machine. In this regard it reminded me a lot of other modern human dystopias like California and Station Eleven. You start to get a real feel for the characters and their surroundings while that mystery of what The Process actually is, is constantly sneaking around in the background.
After a pretty amazing scene of James being The Iron Bailiff and evicting a family with small children, the book goes off onto a somewhat different path. We find out that Hector (the machine-made soldier) was sent to James to take him to war. And this is not a cool futuristic war, but instead a historic reenactment of the battle of Dardanelles from the first world war. From here on the story goes into full-blown war mode, detailing small battles and the life of a soldier on the front line, all the while philosophizing about the algorithm and equation of war.
The book is 400 pages, but it could easily span two entire novels with the amount of story that is in there. In the second part called ‘Then’ the dystopia and Lewes really takes a backseat to the war-part and it takes quite a while before we see Ruth again. Most of the other people from the town don’t return to the book at all, and that made the difference between the two parts feel a bit jarring to me. I felt I was thrown from one story into the next while I wasn’t really done with it yet and really wanted to know more. But De Abaitua is a good writer and although I still wanted to know more about Lewes, he kept driving the story forward without losing steam. It went a bit too fast for my taste and I noticed I started skimming a bit too see when Ruth would come back and we’d find out more about The Process.
If Then is a very interesting combination of science fiction and war literature, questioning what people are capable off and how far they should go. The book poses some great questions on artificial intelligence and technology without really giving you any answers, but it definitely makes it worth it reading this book with someone else and then discussing it to death. I enjoyed reading it, but unfortunately I did find the end somewhat confusing. The ‘twist’ of The Process and what it wanted didn’t make enough sense for me, which pulled me out of the story. If Then definitely demands your attention and if you’re looking for a mind-boggling and challenging read then you should definitely give this one a try The characters are well-formed and interesting and the book gives you plenty to ruminate about. However, if the idea of vague menacing institutes and weird time shifts confuse the hell out of you, then just leave this book be.