This is a novel of big ideas, politically and technologically, but what carries it is how well it’s told. South’s narration is unhurried but engagingly paced—at under 300 pages, Sharpson has pulled off a complete story without any padding—with just the right amount of introspection. South’s personal backstory and the larger political context are built out with a mixture of epigraphs and commendably (if ultimately ironically) organic-feeling flashbacks, and South’s narration is animated by a kind of dry and frequently deflecting amusement, gallows humor, or sanity-preserving sarcasm—a stance that frequently breaks just enough to let real emotion through ... This mixture of self-conscious comedy and bleak consideration of atrocity constantly reminded me of Kurt Vonnegut ... Through South’s story, Sharpson confronts our transformation or obsolescence in the face of technology and the unthinkable and surreal cruelty of state-sponsored violence. Despite this high-tech, cerebral premise, the story is anchored in quiet, resilient humor and wordplay, and with an eye for both the absurdity of bureaucratic interaction and the humanity of its characters ... an odd duck—machine consciousnesses side-by-side with trilby-wearing Cold War pastiches—and all the more enjoyable for that. Its speculative elements lend a freshness to its critique of totalitarianism and petty despots, and, despite its sobering themes, it’s a hopeful novel. Sometimes brutal, often funny, it’s a remarkably assured and polished story, grappling with the best and worst instincts of humanity, even as it imagines what might come next for the species.
A stunning debut featuring a futuristic utopian nightmare that feels plucked from history ... a complex examination of identity, technology, power, and control ... Take out the artificial intelligence running the world and the book almost feels like historical fiction. Or even more frightening, a realistic near future. However, Sharpson makes sure that while we very much are rooted in the backwards country, we never forget all the ways the world has advanced around it ... a slow-burn novel that takes threads we didn’t even know we were holding and pulls them together as we careen towards a shocking end. This is a novel fans will want to read again, picking up the subtle clues overlooked the first time. The political commentary is timely but timeless. As the world divides around us in real time, it’s easy to see alarming similarities in leaders and policies taking shape. The story is layered and nuanced, filled with complicated characters that opens conversations rooted in our past, present, and future. It’s a brilliant mirror to our reality packaged in a fast-paced sci-fi plot.
Sharpson’s provocative debut, adapted from his play The Caspian Sea, takes readers to the early 23rd-century Caspian Republic, an authoritarian nation-state reminiscent of Cold War–era Eastern Europe, where the remnants of pure humanity hold out against an artificial intelligence-controlled world ... Sharpson skillfully evokes an atmosphere of paranoia, duplicity, and secrecy, while using the conflict between humans and AIs to probe themes of self-awareness, identity, and memory. As Sharpson pushes the narrative beyond South’s present and into an increasingly messy future, he showcases the untenable nature of the Caspian Republic and its corrupt framework. The result is a thoughtful sci-fi thriller that skillfully blends a retro spy aesthetic with future technology.