Dystopian fiction is addictive, in part, because of the comfortable distance between the world outside and the one on the page. We feel OK reading about these dark futures because they are at such a remove, even when they comment on or reflect modern society. We’re on the edge, but as a society and as a species, we never quite tip over. Reading remains safe.
And then along comes a book like Persona, and shatters the pleasant notion that we’re only on the edge of the abyss. Though it features future tech, we are living in an age where the heads of countries have to behave like celebrities. We are living in an age where “citizen journalists” stalk the rich and powerful alike in the hopes of catching them in a slip-up to be used as blackmail or published for the prestige of catching someone powerful doing something wrong. The exploration of a world where instead of leaders, nations have “faces,” public P.R. representatives trained to be perfect, diplomatic celebrities, is a little frightening, and entirely plausible.
Suyana Sapaki is the “face” of the United Amazonian Rainforest Coalition for the International Assembly. Faces are the public representatives of countries in the International Assembly, a cross between international celebrities and the United Nations. The Coalition hasn’t been doing so great lately, partly due to Suyana’s lack of diplomatic tact, and partly because an ongoing conflict with a group of eco-terrorists known as Chordata. Suyana’s major break is a contracted “relationship” with the face of America, Ethan Chambers. The state of play isn’t good, but at least it’s stable.
But then someone tries to kill her.
Wounded, on the run, Suyana is immediately disavowed by the International Assembly, leaving her to to uncover a conspiracy before the assassin can finish the job. Her only ally is Daniel, a witless paparazzo who stumbled upon her in an alleyway. But Suyana has been holding back a lot over the years, and whoever’s behind the plot has no idea how hard she can and will fight when her back’s against the wall.
The book impresses most in the creation of a frighteningly plausible bureaucracy. The International Assembly works on a series of complex social protocols and counter-protocols, and while it’s a dense political system, it’s easy to understand what goes on both within it and without. All of the systems in the book feel very grounded and real: Chordata with its system of passwords, boltholes, and information couriers; the freelance news services with their microcameras, strict protocols for on-the-job behavior, and raid contingencies; and the Assembly’s faces, which function like a more formalized version of real-world PR. While the book never leaves Paris, the systems and subsystems make it feel a lot larger and more vast, with consequences stretching beyond the confines of the plot.
Valentine’s tight control over the narrative ensures that absolutely nothing feels safe or certain until the very last page. It’s rare that I don’t know where a book is going and question whether its characters will make it out of the book alive. I was kept guessing until the last chapter, and even then, the tone lingers. Lots of books place their characters “in over their heads,” only for them to spend most of the time actually doing fairly well for themselves. This is not that book, and it’s a lot better for it.
A grim, intense political thriller, Persona is chillingly plausible setting, has atmosphere in spades, and enough twists and turns to keep even the most genre-savvy readers guessing.
Persona is available now.