Dystopian futures in a digital, or dare I say post-digital, world are fast becoming the foci of choice for the new breed of hungry young authors. With this growth in popularity there naturally comes the danger of the genre becoming oversaturated with by-the-numbers, interchangeable plots and uninspired characters. Step up Mr Alexander King, here to cleanse the palate and remind us of the infinite possibilities available when you have a skilled hand, and an imagination carrying more heat than a fire sale.
To give too much synopsis would be to do the novella a disservice, as there is something far more interesting going on beneath the intricate surface of the text here, but, just to shed a little light on the story, forgive this admittedly reductive explanation. ‘It Looks Like You’re Writing A Letter’ is part science fiction, part detective story which seems to have a passionate antagonism with identity and what it is to be human in a world controlled and surveilled by social media.
In a not-so-distant future, classic whisky-soaked P.I. Henry Thorner is tasked with finding a data thief named (with a tongue firmly in the cheek) Tanner Griffen. Thorner is essentially a kind of modern day misanthrope, the kind of technophobic Luddite you could picture taking mallets to people’s mobiles and tablets on a train. In King’s world though, it is this off-the-grid loner who we may be calling upon to become our hero. In the kingdom of the social media network that knows everything (Ora), the man with no profile is king.
It’s an interesting premise, and the writing is entirely admirable, but in our current climate of books being published faster than an army of e-readers could possibly burn through them, it takes something more to leap out from the data/slush pile. Fortunately Alexander King has something rare, and more than a little bit special in his arsenal. Not only does King possess a unique and engaging voice, full of dark, wry humour, and an inclusive tone, he also has that rare gift of energy. The writing here pulsates with the author’s own enthusiasm, and this lends the plot a great sense of pace. The reader is grabbed by the network cable and pulled headlong through a rollercoaster tour of a world that’s equal parts frightening and mesmerising. This is ‘Bladerunner’ in 1080p on super-fast forward.
The characters are knowingly played to type, but that’s entirely necessary and appropriate for a tale utilising the noir model for its own hyperlinking gains. So many authors are desperate to come across as more intelligent than they have any right to claim to be, but here King achieves something far rarer. King avoids the pitfalls of pretension, focusing always on the story, and in this we are left with the sense of an author with much greater depth and soul than is allowed to bubble to the surface. It leaves the reader desperate for more, to find out what else is burning away in the fibre-optic recesses of this unique mind.
Another genuine credit of the book is in its power to surprise. As an homage to, and pastiche of, noir and pulp fiction, you could forgive the book for settling into predictable plot forms, but King intelligently plays on these expectations, allowing the plot to settle into received modes before suddenly taking a sharp left down a road you didn’t even realise was there. It really is not going too far to offer Paul Auster’s magnificent ‘New York Trilogy’ as a comparison. It’s high praise, but it is deserved praise.
For the meagre asking price (less than a city-centre coffee), you can’t go wrong with this tale. It’s fast, it’s darkly funny, and it has the unique quality of an author that can translate personal energy and enthusiasm across to the reader. Unlike the dystopian future of acres of dead code found within the world presented here, this writing is anything but dead on the page. Room for improvement? Sure, isn’t there always? But the little details can always be learned and worked upon, whereas the natural charisma and engaging narrative voice, are things that can’t be taught. Alexander King is a naturally gifted storyteller, and ‘It Looks Like You’re Writing A Letter’ is a chance to get on at the ground floor of what deserves to be an impressive writing career.
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