Orion | 2019 (28 November) | 405p | Review copy | Buy the book
Theo Wilson’s life is pretty rubbish – he works in a cheap burger joint, he lives with his mum in a house that is a shambles, not particularly surprising considering she’s living on the edge, taking drugs and involved with the wrong people. And now she’s disappeared completely, even leaving her rig behind. Everyone, no matter how poor, has a rig. They enable the user to hook into the alternate or enhanced version of reality that controls so much of everyday life. On her rig, Theo finds messages that don’t just threaten his mother but also him. If she doesn’t give these people what she owes then they will cut Theo into pieces. Theo knows he has to find her before they find him.
Theo discovers that the clues can be found in SPACE, a virtual universe so powerful that nobody is permitted to stay in it for longer than three hours at a time before they’re booted out. It is a universe fueled by intense emotion and sensory experience. People can do anything they like there, including playing elaborate games (in which one can die repeatedly), but Theo and his friends are about to discover that they can do much, much worse. People are being stolen, their emotions harvested and fed into the system, turning it into a playpen for the twisted. And Theo can’t trust anyone, especially the vPolice who patrol this alternate world.
Ctrl + S has a fantastic premise and is a fast and entertaining read that takes us into what seems on the surface to be a gamer’s paradise. This is a near future world in which many of the bad things, like global warming, have been fixed and people have been given a release from drudgery in the heavily controlled but irresistible SPACE. The descriptions of SPACE are the highlight of the novel. It’s all extremely visual. It feels as if we are in a game ourselves. This is the colour while the reality of Theo’s life is the grey. That real world is dark and seedy and increasingly so as we learn more about Theo’s mother.
With the four main characters aged about 20 years old, including the feisty girl that Theo can’t help falling for, and the story involving the hunt for the mother of one of the characters, Ctrl + S does have the feel of a Young Adult science fiction gaming adventure. The young people also seem to spend a fair amount of time throwing up, so there’s also an icky factor! Nevertheless, this is a book I gobbled up in a couple of sittings. There are some dark themes, and we meet evil people (there’s one moment early on that really shocked me), but this is a surprisingly light, sometimes humorous, novel with some interesting ideas about a possible direction in which the world might go, taking the idea of people not being able to cope without their phones to another level. I especially liked the idea of how emojis have developed into more than a language, almost as an emotional force. I think younger readers in particular will really enjoy this.