If Then – Matthew de Abaitua

2015 marks the centenary of the Gallipoli campaign. Matthew de Abaitua uses it as the setting for parts of his new novel If Then (published by Angry Robot, who kindly gave me a review copy through NetGalley). 

The story follows James and Ruth, two inhabitants of he town of Lewes. A catastrophic economic collapse has created an even wider gap between rich and poor. Increasing mechanisation has rendered most traditional jobs obsolete, leaving many people desperately poor. The residents of Lewes have chosen to sell their bio data in exchange for having their basic needs met by a complex algorithm known as the Process. It allocates tasks and roles to residents, providing worthwhile activity, shelter and food. The residents provide their bio data in exchange, which helps to refine the Process’s algorithms. 

James has a special role within the Process. He acts as the town’s bailiff. Periodically, the Process identifies a list of Lewes residents to be evicted from the town because they are unproductive or are predicted to become troublemakers. As bailiff, James gives up his autonomy to become directly controlled by the Process in a night of ritualised violence that provides a valuable outlet for the town’s feelings of disempowerment. While on patrol one day, James finds an injured WW1 stretcher bearer called Hector.  Hector is an artificial construct, a product of the Process created for an unknown purpose. James takes him into his home in order to help unlock the mystery. 

What follows is a meditation on violence and war. James finds himself working with Hector as a stretcher bearer in an artificial reconstruction of the Gallipoli campaign. Through James’s eyes we see the brutality and senselessness of war. We are forced to reflect on the way modern society normalises war and conflict for the many by concentrating the horror of it in a few. If Then asks us what value we place on people beyond their role as economic units, and whether we would rethink our actions if we were able to truly experience their consequences at first hand. 

Goodreads rating: 3*

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