If Then by Matthew de Abaitua (book review)

March 24, 2016 | By | Reply More

The world has changed, civilisation has crumbled but in the small town of Lewes, life goes on. Yet, although the town may look like a throwback to a former time, a time before technology took over, it’s the setting for one of the most advanced experiments ever conducted. Lewes is a town controlled by the Process, a programme based on algorithms that determine exactly what the town and its inhabitants need. James is the town’s bailiff. He’s human and yet also part of the Process. Enforcing the law, no matter how difficult, is James’ vital role, but when the Process starts building up to war he must make a choice: follow the Process or try to end the experiment before it destroys everything it was created to protect.


I’m a bit of a geek, so when I saw this book advertised I was immediately intrigued by the technological ideas it represented. A whole town controlled by an evolving algorithmic process? Brilliant! Where do I get a copy? Unfortunately, I’m not sure that Matthew de Abaitua’s ‘If Then’ managed to meet my expectations in terms of story, but it was certainly a book that gave me plenty to think about.

The central character, James, is a man who has had an implant that allows the Process to control him once a month during the eviction process, when people who are no longer needed by the town must leave, by force if they won’t go freely. It means he occupies an awkward position within the town, being seen as responsible for the evictions even if he’s not in control of his actions. His relationship with his wife, Ruth, is quite sad at times because the implant has removed some of James’ humanity, taken away the loving, laughing man she married and replaced him with a distant stranger. It’s very interesting to watch their relationship change over the course of the book and see the lengths to which they’ll each go as the story progresses.

Yet, as interesting as it is, because James is such an emotionless character, it makes it extremely hard to relate to him and I think this was my biggest difficulty with the book. The ideas in it were thought-provoking, particularly as the war developed and the Process starting creating soldiers, but I really struggled to get into it. I understand that James was supposed to be slightly inhuman and that his lack of empathy was deliberate but, because he was so strongly the focus of the story, the other characters didn’t get a chance to shine through and make up for it.

I might have found it difficult to engage with this story but, because I know that the bits I didn’t get on with were very deliberate, I’d probably conclude that although this book wasn’t for me, it’s still one I’d consider recommending to a certain type of person. If you want to follow through the thought exercise of what happens when we’re given only what we need, to consider how war affects the development of science and technology and to take time to reflect on what makes us human, this is probably the book for you. If, on the other hand, you want a gripping plot and characters you really care about, I’d probably suggest looking elsewhere.

Vinca Russell

March 2016

(pub: Angry Robot, 2015. 416 page small enlarged paperback. Price: £ 8.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-85766-471-6)

check out website: www.angryrobotbooks.com

Category: Books, Scifi

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