In the aftermath of the Jubilee, has Syd created a monster?
In this follow-up to 2013’s Proxy, we follow Syd and Marie as they struggle to cope with the brave new world they have created.
When their friend Knox sacrificed himself in Syd’s stead to bring about the Jubilee, the debt networks that kept the rich in power came tumbling down. Syd, a reluctant hero from the outset, finds himself in the Katniss Everdeen-like role of mascot for the Reconciliation. He has no choices, is trotted about to make speeches, and paraded in front of ever-more dogmatic and fanatical revolutionaries.
Syd quickly realises that the Reconciliation’s tech-free and supposedly egalitarian world is scarcely better than the openly divided society the surviving ‘Machinists’ struggle to recreate in the burned out inner cities. When a mysterious disease begins to sweep the land, first through the camps where the rich of old are kept in cramped conditions and forced to labour, Syd realises that he might hold the key to curing the disease and averting a disaster for humanity.
This is what I like about Syd, his sense of justice. Just as he chose to help a kid with no money in Proxy, he is moved by the plight of the Guardians, robotic servants who were previously feared as deadly fighters but who lost all their abilities when their network links were severed during the Jubilee. Syd stands up for the zombie-like Guardians when they fall sick, when others treat them like objects.
What I like less about Syd is his lack of conviction, his failure to choose a side, which also came through in Proxy. Things happen to Syd: that’s fine, it’s what drives the plot. But he never takes matters into his own hands as a real agent. In this sense, secondary characters like Marie – and Knox – become key to driving the plot forward. In Guardian, Syd is motivated to find a cure but it’s driven by his innate sense of fairness; he doesn’t have a plan for the future, he doesn’t know what will come next. He just knows, or feels, that the disease is bad and should be stopped, and this is his motivation. He is not the one who has an issue with restarting the network, just as he was not the one who really wanted the Jubilee in the first place.
Guardian also sees the development of a love story between Syd and Liam, the murderous yet sensitive robot-handed bodyguard who is assigned to protect Syd with his life if necessary. In my review of Proxy, I wrote that I’d be keen to see how London would develop Syd’s sexuality. I was glad that this was a key theme in Guardian as it had seemed a little by-the-way in the first book. But similar to his lack of political persuasion, Syd’s quite the closed book and I didn’t really get the feeling that he was excited about Liam, odd especially given the lack of potential love interests in his life so far. He seems to let Liam love him rather than develop feelings of his own. Liam too is perhaps a little too remorseless in the souls he dispatches with his killer metallic hand and a little too two-dimensionally in love with Liam – we don’t know why he loves him, it’s just a given. Both the characters have faced considerable hardship, both growing up closeted in intense environments (Syd in a world of debt and punishment meted out on his sponsor Knox’s behalf, and Liam raised as an elite soldier in the Reconciliation’s pre-Jubilee hideaway) and this may go some way in explaining their lack of open emotion, but a little more opening up and breaking down of barriers between them and more of a relationship developing would have been nice.
The second book keeps up the pace of the first novel with rapid-fire action scenes and many tense moments fraught with danger and the return of characters encountered in the first book. Guardian builds well on the ground that Proxy laid and for teen readers looking for an action-packed adventure, Guardian delivers much in the same way Proxy did. But it would be nice to read a book that was less extreme in terms of ideology. I had the same thoughts with The Hunger Games. Do we always have to switch from one extreme to the other, swinging full-pelt from tech-enabled killer capitalism with open inequality to pseudo-communism where anyone who steps out of line is disappeared?
Since technology is here to stay in the real world, we need texts that explore how we can live in harmony with it rather than treating tech as something that is always weaponised and feared. However, given the lack of accountability that social media giants currently enjoy and the proliferation of things like drone technology in warfare, it’s no wonder many writers choose to write a world that is in the thralls of technological meltdown instead of a future where tech enables people (and not just the rich) to live better lives.