Century | 2019 (24 January) | 336p | Review copy | Buy the book
The laws of Golden State require a certain kind of enforcer and Laz Ratesic, in his 50s, a veteran of the special police, is one of the best there is. Perhaps there has been only one better – Charlie, Laz’s brother. Laz is a Speculator. He can detect lies, just from an inflection in the voice or from the smallest movement of a face muscle and from them he can construct the truth. It’s an extraordinary skill and a vital one, too, because in Golden State to lie is illegal. Telling just one lie can result in years of imprisonment or even exile into whatever it is that lies outside the confines of Golden State. Nobody knows what’s out there. Like the past, it’s not knowable and isn’t to be questioned. But nobody wants to go outside.
Laz believes in his job. He’s proud that he’s so good at it. He believes it’s for the common good. But just because people can’t lie, it doesn’t mean that other crimes can’t be committed and one day he is sent on a case that will change everything. With a young partner to teach in tow, Laz is sent to investigate the suspicious case of a man who has fallen from a roof to his death. Nothing about the death makes sense, not least the discovery of an actual work of fiction, which tells a story – a lie. But that’s just the beginning.
I’m a big fan of Ben H. Winters’ novels – I loved the apocalyptic trilogy, The Last Policeman – and so I was very keen to read Golden State. This time we’re taken to a dystopian city in the future. It’s a place that reminds us of California, although nobody in Golden State would have heard of such a name. The powers that be strongly believe that that Golden State is held together by truths and so everybody greets each other, not with a pleasantry, but with an irrefutable truth. Truth is almost a religion, depositories of truths are regarded as temples.
There is some fascinating worldbuilding at work here. Ben H. Winters describes the different areas and public buildings of the state so vividly. We see people going about their everyday lives – Laz particularly cares about food – and it almost seems normal until you realise how small this world is, how unquestioning it is, and how susceptible to manipulation it is. People watch CCTV instead of normal television; a novel is non-fiction; all one’s thoughts, deeds and transactions are written up in one’s Day Book. I was so intrigued to learn what remained beyond Golden State but that is a speculation forbidden to all in Golden State but Speculators.
Laz is a strange one. You’d have thought that he would be difficult to warm to, he’s such an enthusiastic agent of the dystopian state. And there is such unkindness, not to mention barbarism, in the sentences that are handed down to people who utter a lie or, through illness, are unable to fathom the truth. Yet I did like Laz very much, especially as the novel goes on and he starts to question the tiny world around him.
I must admit that I did get a little lost with the actual case itself. It’s complicated and, as you’d expect with conspiracies, little can be taken at face value. There is also a twist which I didn’t really care for. Having said all that, everything around the case really did appeal to me, especially the way in which it all ends. I love Ben H. Winters’ ideas. How he can create fearful worlds or situations and put people into them who could seem ordinary but become exceptional. And if you haven’t read The Last Policeman trilogy yet, do!