There are sage and oft-repeated words of warning that go something along the lines of, depending on your paraphrase of choice, that “if it looks too good t be true, it usually is.”
It might feel like that phrase has been intoned so often that it has lost all meaning but in S. C. Eston’s brilliantly propulsive novel Deficiency, it comes alive with a burning truthfulness that gives you considerable pause, the kind that makes you wonder if behind all the gloss, there lurks something dangerous and malevolent.
That’s not always the case, of course since sometimes, actually often times, good things are actually as good as they appear – to think ill of everything is to invite a scary descent down the conspiracy theory rabbit hole and no one wants that – but in the case of Artenz and Keidi, a devoted couple who work hard in the gleamingly perfect floating urban oasis of Prominence on the planet of Garadia, heeding the warning is very much in their interest.
Not that they would think that at the start of a novel which has them situated in a sweet spot of their lives, their hard work for the corporations that rule Prominence – there is a government but it is as lame duck as they come, power-wise – rewarded by an idyllic existence where all their needs and wants are met and personal virtual reality inserts augment their day-to-day existence to an almost addictive degree.
“Unable to wait any longer, Keidi turned away from the screen and starting pacing, a hand on her head, trying to stop her swirling thoughts. When she came back to the monitor, a new message had been written.
Its significance was undeniable.
No match found. Try again.” (P. 41)
Their lives are perfect, oh so perfect; that is, until, someone they love dearly vanishes without a trace, real or virtual, and they are faced with the mother of all decisions – stick around and investigate where she might have gone, even with gathering dark clouds of corporate backlash that suggest the benevolence they enjoy is heavily, dangerously conditional, or run for their lives to a place called the Lowlands, which sits beneath Prominence and does not have greatest of reputations.
It is, to put it mildly in desperate need of a major PR campaign and a makeover, or so the corporate powers that be would have you believe (could they be lying? Hmm …) but when things go south, very, very quickly, Artenz and Keidi, with the help of some good and justly self-sacrificial people who emerge from the shadows, have no choice but to risk their lives getting to this supposedly nefarious place.
Let the corporate cat and mouse games begin!
The brilliance of Deficiency lies in the way it melds together a seductively immersive pell-mell race for survival with affectingly profound characterisation and some pithy, timely observations on the darkness that lies behind the sunny, happy corporate façade.
This is a seriously clever novel which celebrates the primacy of humanity and the way in which the bonds between people are abundantly more powerful than the overweeningly destructive tactics of corporations, and that when it all coems down to it, we are far better placing our trust and hope in the former than the latter.
It all sounds delightfully warm and fuzzy, but at its heart, the message that percolates through the highly-readable length and breadth of Deficiency, is a potently necessary one.
It’s more of a buyer beware scenario, a cautionary tale that suggests there is nothing wrong with finding a home in the bosom of corporate perfection but that you are foolish in the extreme if you think this system has your best interests at heart.
All the corporate juggernaut wants is profit, ever greater profit and if you stand in the way of making that happen, well, you will quickly become surplus to requirements as Artenz and Keidi, who have a love affair for the ages, discover all too quickly in a story that pleasingly take more than sufficient time to set things up before putting the medal fervently to the medal and letting things rip.
What sustains this mad dash through Prominence and its less than gorgeous lower levels is the humanity that Eston painstakingly waves into every word and captivating scene.
It is damn near impossible not to care deeply for characters like Artenz and Keidi, and some of their friends, old and new such as Marti, Eltaya and Xavi, because Eston imbues them all with a raw, affecting humanity, the kind that doesn’t just run but hurts in every possible way doing so.
“Eltaya thought rapidly … but there was nothing to debate. The decision was easy.
‘Go,’ she said to her ghost. ‘Just go. Help her if you can.’
Eltaya opened the link again.
‘Keidi,’ she said. ‘I’m sending someone to help you.’
‘Thank oyu,’ came the reply.
‘Good luck,’ Eltaya said as Xavi cut the power.
The link was lost, and her ghost gone.” (P. 275)
You get a very real sense that these people have a lot to lose and a lot to gain and that what happens to them really, really matters.
Not every sci-fi novel manages this but Deficiency does with thrilling aplomb, offering up life-changing adventure while speaking to that part of us that wants things to be lovely and beautiful and endlessly wonderful and which is horrified when it turns out there is great beastliness beneath the sweet and happy “truths” we have bought into.
No one wants their world to be blown apart and to have everything they know called into question, especially the idea that their hopes and dreams have been for nought, and you get a powerful sense of how traumatic this is for Artenz and Keidi and yet, how they rally because they are there for each other and because people they barely know, for the most part, are their for them.
It is emboldening to realise how much power exists in the bonds we share with others; we might love seeing our friends, catching up with them for meals and so forth, but when it really comes down to it, who will be there and who won’t be there when we really need them?
And can who we are survive having the rug pulled comprehensively from under our feet?
Deficiency would argue heartily yes on both counts, but this is no kumbayah romp through nice, empty platitudes; this is a battle for people’s bodies and souls, one that takes you a thrilling ride far beyond what is known and comfortable while affirming how important are those things that make us human, that make life worth living and which will persist long after corporations have fallen off the wrong end of the balance sheet.