Would you sell yourself into slavery if it was your only chance at freedom?
I really enjoyed this book.
Alex London has put a really interesting on a possible future in what might better fall into the category of speculative fiction, rather than science fiction.
We enter the world of Mountain City, a place divided between the extreme rich and the extreme poor. We meet 16-year old Knox, a rich kid who absolves his petty crimes through a proxy, a person in need who takes punishments in the place of their patron, whom they are never meant to meet. A proxy might have a well-behaved patron but that’s not the case for Sydney, or Syd, who has the bad luck of being Knox’s proxy, having been indebted for 18 years to the charitable organisation that rescued him from the wastelands outside the city, in return for his education. Since the age of four, Syd has been taking Knox’s blows for him. In the opening scene of the novel, Knox causes a fatal car crash and Syd is arrested, charged with homicide, and sentenced to death. In a bid to escape his fate, Syd sets off a chain of events that entangles his life with Knox’s, much more closely than either of them could ever have anticipated.
The novel resonates very much with the world we are all growing used to, and which anyone born after the year 2000 has grown up in. In Mountain City, everyone is profiled and connected to a data stream, and targeted ads are fed into a live stream of data that is scanned directly onto the retina via augmented contact lenses or projected into a holograph for the viewer to see. Everyone in Mountain City is free to apply for credit, adding time to their indenture as proxies. Syd, a discreet and pragmatic character, never adds to his debt, never lets himself be turned into data for the various corporations to mine.
The question of identity and privacy is explored further in the fact that Syd is gay, and outed in the first few chapters. It was refreshing to read about a gay character without the book being necessarily about sexuality. Although there is some initial mockery of Syd due to his sexuality in the way he’s outed – in class, in front of the boy he fancies – and some open homophobia, the main characters don’t shun Syd and his sexuality is not a big deal. I was kind of expecting Knox and Syd to hit it off but the way things turn out is more realistic, if a little melodramatic. I’m glad Syd didn’t die and I’m glad he wasn’t given a one-dimensional love interest to be sacrificed for tragedy’s sake. Good job on those fronts, Alex London.
The parallels between the developing story and references to Syd’s sexuality are not overt and I’m curious to find out in the sequel if London’s approach is one of focussing on Syd’s sexuality as a theme or normalising it as a by-the-way. Either could be really interesting.
The writing was on occasion a little flat, particularly some of the dialogue, and some of the turns of events were a bit over the top, but the fast pace of the book and the plot’s various twists keeps you hooked. The novel says a lot about young people and perceptions of responsibility, and how a system that benefits the well-off can be perpetuated even by those who disagree with it until they take a stand. One of the characters, Marie, is well-off but pro-revolution: she has lived a life of comfort but eventually seeks debt forgiveness for indentured proxies and sides with Syd, believing he can deliver this. The proxy premise is also a brilliant simile for increased media attention in recent years on how rich people get off lightly compared to poor: they just buy their way out. The only flaw with the system is that a truly callous person with enough money would just let their proxy take the punishment and buy a new one’s debt if the first died. But I suppose the point of Knox’s journey, irresponsible as he seems at first, is that he eventually recognises the implications of his actions. This can also be translated to today’s globalisation and the way we rely on poorly-paid labourers on the other side of the world to provide us with every-day goods like coffee and smartphones. We never see them but they are there, and they suffer because of us and the material comfort we seek in our own lives. The indebtedness of poorer people seeking an education and a way out of poverty is also a point not lost, given the struggle they face in the novel and in real life. In short, the novel resonates with many issues younger people may face today.
Next on my list is the follow-up to Proxy, Guardian. Looking forward to it.