Review: Revision by Andrea Phillips

Mira is a barista. She’s also a trust fund baby, not really too sure what she’s supposed to be doing with her life and has just been dumped. Benji, her former boyfriend, has a tech startup. Called Verity, it’s a news aggregator site that includes searchable entries for everyone and everything in the news. Distraught, angry and worst of all bored, Mira decides to have a little fun. She changes Benji’s Verity entry to show the pair of them are engaged.

That night, she wakes up to find Benji back in the apartment.

Proposing.

Something is badly wrong at Verity. Something that hands the power of life and death to anyone with edit privileges. Reality is suddenly mutable and now, Mira must try and find out the truth from one of Benji’s old partners before her life is revised to a sudden, bloody stop.

 

Andrea Phillips has been doing some of the best Transmedia storytelling on the planet for a while now. She’s worked on Perplex City, The Maester’s Path for Game of Thrones and has kickstarted an excellent serial, The Daring Adventures of Lucy Smokeheart. The versatility that both game, and transmedia fiction, design requires is at the heart of Revision and it gives the book a lightness of touch that belies just how dark the story gets.

The first thing that hits you is just how good a comedic writer Phillips is. Mira is a perpetually slightly put upon, very intelligent lead with a nice line in self-deprecating humour and a glorious sense of the absurd. She’s rebelled from her moneyed family in the gentlest and in many ways least confrontational way; taking a service industry job, refusing to live in a family property and most importantly refusing to take anything as seriously as they do. Mira doesn’t float through her life but she never lets herself feel overburdened with responsibility.

In the hands of a lesser writer that could eventually play as annoying, but Phillips takes Mira’s own, chosen, revision of her life and uses it as the basis for something far more complex and interesting. Across the course of the novel, Mira is never without agency and carries out an increasingly complex dialog with the idea of personal responsibility. She’s an insightful, instinctively clever and principled lead but she’s also someone who is faced with an impossible situation and Phillips never lets us, or her, forget that. Mira struggles with her choices, avoids them as long as she can and only deals with things when she has to. It’s a gutsy move for a protagonist but it absolutely pays off. She’s not just likable, she’s familiar. We’ve all been Mira, all struggled to deal with something that’s been put on us and as a result her journey through the book has a real emotional punch to it. That’s especially true of the second half, where Phillips’ refusal to go for pat or easy answers pays dividends again and again. Mira’s new world is complex and unsettling, and both she and the reader remain unclear just who her allies are for most of the book. It’s a pleasingly untidy counterpoint to the sinister precision with which Verity hacks reality’s operating system.

That extends to the other characters too. Benji remains as uncertain of his role in the story as we are for most of the book and the shared lie he and Mira live is again well observed and painfully familiar. There’s something to the relationship, that’s clear, but it’s something neither of them fully understand. Again, there’s a pleasing, humane level of untidiness to them and that extends to Mira’s best friend Eli and the complex way they dance around one another. You get a sense of Eli in particular having a story of his own that Mira guest stars in at times and that gives him a remarkable amount of depth. That’s true of the other characters too, in particular Mira’s principled, relaxed bosses at the coffee shop and her splendidly upper crust parents. In both cases these characters could be stereotypes but instead they read like people you know. No one’s tidy, none of them are one single thing and that all serves to make what Verity can do even more sinister.

It also makes the book’s second lead all the more interesting. Chandra is a former Verity member and one of its first victims. She’s glimpsed in the background at first but as the novel continues she becomes an elegantly realized counterpoint to Mira. One has no responsibility, the other has too much and the friction that generates makes the scenes the two women share crackle. Again, there’s a sense of Chandra being the lead of her own story and that’s especially borne out by the last act. No one involved in Verity’s work is entirely villainous but no one has clean hands either. That’s what makes them, and the technology, so enticing. A device that can wipe away mistakes, in the hands of the very people who can’t help but make them.

Revision is intense, human and very funny. Phillips balances character drama with big science fiction ideas to create a story that feels grounded and real even as its implications become clear. This is character driven science fiction at its best and an early contender for my Books of the Year list. I can’t think of a better way for Fireside to start their fiction imprint and I can’t recommend the book highly enough. Pick it up, it’s great.

Advertisements