Book Review: MUNKi by Gareth Southwell

The synopsis:

What price would you pay to live forever?

The winter her grandfather died, Cari Silvestri swapped her home town for a new life. But the past is not so easily outrun. Almost ten years on, Grandfather returns, his stolen memories repackaged by technology giant Merrywhile Industries as a slick marketing promo for their latest project: digital immortality. But when no one believes her, Cari’s search for proof and answers gradually draws her into a lawless digital underworld.

Mel Faith is also haunted by the past. Her journalistic career circling the drain, she finds herself still obsessed with the one piece she never filed – the tragic history of Michael Sommeil, grandson of Merrywhile’s founder. It’s a story with few leads and fewer prospects, but at whose heart – she’s sure – a secret still sits untold.

As their paths intertwine, the two women enter a world of masks and aliases, of mercenary hackers and corporate spies, and where, underlying it all, is the hunt for the Singularity – the point, both feared and hoped for, where AI will finally surpass human understanding, and nothing will ever again be the same.

Set in the near-future, there is plenty of tech the reader will recognise in this book, along with some that is on the verge of being commonplace: dermal patches, AI development, micro drones and virtual reality. This means that systems work in a believable way, and even the more speculative ideas such as memory download and digital immortality are easily accepted in the world Southwell has created. Reference is made to real historical events, including – unless I’ve misinterpreted it – the pandemic we are currently going through. This is particularly interesting because the concept of a virus runs throughout the book, in medical, social and computing contexts. The use of the dark web and community gaming also gives some interesting and currently relevant food for thought.

There are several character perspectives necessary to tell the whole story, which integrate very well by the end. It took me a while to really care about any of their personal plights; their motivations are sound and well thought-out, but they are lacking perhaps in emotional connection. I put this partly down to the amount of backstory telling that goes on, as opposed to allowing the reader to ground in ‘real-time’ scenes. This also means that there’s a little waiting to do before grasping where the plot is headed, in contrast to the usual fast-paced thriller format. This is not, however, a major distraction from an enjoyable read, and I did find the references to dying languages and family relationships touching.

As well as the range of personal perspectives, we get occult, religious, scientific and philosophical concepts all coming together in one story, which is quite remarkable. Southwell deftly shows crossovers between these apparently distinct modes of thinking, and poses many interesting questions on the nature of belief, identity and values. I loved the left-brain right-brain undercurrent, the theme of evolution in its many forms, and the different ways of demonstrating consciousness. Knowledge in the aforementioned subject areas may enhance the experience of the story a little, but everything vital to the plot is explained simply and without condescension towards the reader: a surprisingly difficult balance to strike.

MUNKi is as good as any popular sci-fi I’ve read. If I were to make a comparison, Blake Crouch is the name that comes to mind, as this has the same attention to practical philosophy and forward thinking. I could see this working very well as a film or TV series: the visuals are stunning and the way the different perspectives function as an omniscient narrator are very fitting to the subject of the book.

While some of the ideas here are not unique, where MUNKi really excels is in weaving together numerous disciplines to turn them effectively into a multi-layered story of transhumanism. It will make you think, both about our present and our future, and it will surely entertain. A recommended read.

Buy MUNKi on Amazon

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