Combat Chassis, Brain Scans and Angst: Michael R. Fletcher’s Ghosts of Tomorrow

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Imagine a future where brains can be scanned, where personalities and consciousness become simulacra. Let’s take all of the energy and passion of youth and let it loose on a digital playground. Let’s raise it in a world where killscores mean more than lives because lives mean nothing – because you have no attachment to them. Where reality and existence are one step removed from whatever came before, however real or existent that might have been. Here it doesn’t matter. When you’re living disembodied in a 24/7 hyperviolent simulation, then you’re how do you distinguish right from wrong?

And here starts Michael R. Fletcher’s Ghosts of Tomorrow.

Let’s take a look at the blurb:

The children are the future.
And someone is turning them into highly trained killing machines.

Straight out of school, Griffin, a junior Investigations agent for the North American Trade Union, is put on the case: Find and close the illegal crèches. No one expects him to succeed, Griffin least of all. Installed in a combat chassis Abdul, a depressed seventeen year old killed during the Secession Wars in Old Montreal, is assigned as Griffin’s Heavy Weapons support. Nadia, a state-sanctioned investigative reporter working the stolen children story, pushes Griffin ever deeper into the nightmare of the black market brain trade.

Deep in the La Carpio slums of Costa Rica, the scanned mind of an autistic girl runs the South American Mafia’s business interests. But she wants more. She wants freedom. And she has come to see humanity as a threat. She has an answer: Archaeidae. At fourteen, he is the deadliest assassin alive. Two children against the world.

The world is going to need some help.

You’d be right in thinking it all sounds a bit grim. There is little room for breathing in Fletcher’s future. It takes but pages for the chaos to begin: poor Griffin vomits into his own mask at the sight of corpses littering the landscape, the result of a failed raid on a creche. Much like the reader, he’s thrown into the deep end with no field experience, and barely old enough to shave. Most of the cast fare no better. 88, named after the number of the cell she inhabits, introduces us to her world through the complexities of its navigation. She doesn’t understand people, but she understands processes. All she wants is to find her mum. She’s quite literally searching the world over, thousands of little 88 algorithms working overtime to little avail. And then there are the poor children trapped in combat chassis and bred entirely to kill, some not yet out of their teens but already more powerful than veteran soldiers. They are young and they are living beyond their years, most against their will. It’s a horrible, desperate situation that makes for a horribly enjoyable read.

With its large ensemble cast, you’d be forgiven for thinking Ghosts of Tomorrow a slowburner, yet Fletcher weaves a taut future thriller with little in the way of fat. Those familiar with his fantasy works (Beyond Redemption and the Stabby award-winning The Mirror’s Truth) will be well aware of the snowball effect that is a Michael R. Fletcher novel. Things start bad, they get worse. It’s like watching the aftermath of a car crash through the cracks between your fingers. Heroes fail fast, characters emerge and proclaim themselves major players only to die off pages later. Angsty crushes explode mid-air. Satellites go down. Each chapter propels the book that little bit faster towards a satisfying climax. Everyone is good and bad in equal measure, and even if they are doing the right thing, it might not be for the right reasons. Fletcher’s talent for writing morally gray and outright despicable shitbags is second only to his ability to make you care about them, and it’s one of the books strongest points. Even the dastardly Trump-Jobs cluster nightmare that is Mark Lokner gets his moment. No matter how stripped of a physical form the characters may be, they all remain resolutely human.

As with his other books, Fletcher questions themes of identity and being, here realized as simulacra, scans and mirrors. With a knack for digging deep into the psyche of his characters, we find these themes laid out bare for the reader in a number of interesting ways, not least of all the nuanced differentiation between multiple versions of characters. Lokner’s other selves can’t be trusted, but then we might say the same for 88’s. With each digital self possessing its own agenda, Ghosts of Tomorrow picks at the scabs that bind the characters together. Lokner and 88’s stories also run a type of alternate parallel which further adds to the complexities at hand. One is simply trying to locate her mother, the other is driven by a quest for power. Both play into a twisted power dynamic where the biggest enemy becomes none other than themselves. Whilst it’s not an entirely original theme, Fletcher handles it well. Readers familiar with his later work might find tedium in the repetition, but given it’s a re-release of an earlier work it can be easily overlooked.

The one major issue with Ghosts of Tomorrow is its awkward demographic presentation. For a book tagged as Young Adult it pulls no punches. Whilst I don’t think YA should (or does) dumb down content too heavily for its audience, there is often an expectation for YA books to follow certain paths and tropes. Ghosts of Tomorrow leans more towards the developing crossover or New Adult trend much like Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, and Ernest Clines Ready Player One – both books you’d find across Adult and Young Adult sections of bookstores. However, in occupying that awkward mid-ground, the resultant reception could go either way. YA non-believers ready to dismiss the book should take note: it’s a very adult book that just happens to have a young cast. It might drive some young adult’s away given its brutal approach, and the rotating cast might dissuade those who prefer only one or two protagonists. Fletcher’s writing is direct and clear enough to work for either audience, but the nuance might be lost on younger minds. Equally, some of the angstier moments might lead to eye-rolling or page skipping amongst adult readers.

On the whole Ghosts of Tomorrow is a solid near-future thriller that most will breeze through in a couple of evenings. It’s that urgent in approach that it’s hard to find a time to conveniently put it down. I frequently found myself thinking ‘just one more chapter’ before realizing another two or three had passed. It’s a book to read and consider on its own merit and not on the convenient tags that are used for marketing. If you over-think it, it’ll take a little time to accept it as the awkward kid with no place of belonging. But then it’s a story about awkward kids who don’t know where they belong, and we’ve probably all known that kid, right?

Ghosts of Tomorrow – 8/10

Michael R. Fletcher’s Ghosts of Tomorrow is out now in paperback and digital forms. You can get a copy here.

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