Aug 052021

The Times: Nikolai South is a policeman working for StaSec, the state security organ of the Caspian Republic. Covering roughly the territory of present-day Azerbaijan, the republic is a last, lonely redoubt of undigitised humanity, but it’s hardly the beacon of freedom its founders intended. The novel opens with South’s inspection of two suicides. The young, especially, are killing themselves in an effort to transfer their consciousnesses out of the half-starved, authoritarian republic and into the digital Ah! Sea (a too-good-to-be-true emerald cyber-ocean dotted with floating castles).

South is tasked with minding a visitor from beyond the republic’s borders — a world transformed by artificial intelligence, where more than half of humanity lives in cyberspace. His visitor, an AI in a cloned body, is not even strictly human. And, as if South’s chalice were not poisoned enough already, the visitor is the spitting image of his wife, dead these 20 years.

One misstep will kill him, as South tries to protect and understand his charge, ducking and diving all the while through internal struggles within StaSec and its longstanding rivalry with ParSec, the security organ of the totalitarian New Humanist Party.

Neil Sharpson’s debut is adapted from his stage play, The Caspian Sea. It mixes Cold War nostalgia with smart thinking about artificial intelligence and spiritual identity. There’s many a wry nod to the writings of Christian anarchist Jacques Ellul, but while the homework’s impressive, what really matters is South’s lugubrious, Smileyesque odyssey through present bread queues and past disappointments.