The Destructives is one of those books in which things don’t so much transpire as unfold. It’s a multi-layered story that takes traditional science fictional concepts like the singularity, artificial intelligence, alien behavior, and humanity’s place in the universe, and draws from them the most logical (if cynical) conclusions, based on what we know about human nature. It’s a work that doesn’t so much subvert expectations as shatter them utterly. It’s dense, but it also moves; it’s both a breakneck thriller and one of the year’s most thoughtful works of science fiction.
In 2020, an event known as the Seizure yields the first emergent artificial intelligences. Over the next four years, a billion people die in the societal collapse as the AIs try unsuccessfully to fix the damage caused by their birth. The horrified machine minds exile themselves to a sphere orbiting the sun—save one named Dr. Easy. As part of a bargain between the AIs and a woman named Alex Drown, Dr. Easy gets to observe Drown’s grandson Theo’s life from beginning to end, as an experiment.
Years later, Theo is a recovering addict with self-destructive tendencies, teaching pre-Seizure cultural classes on the moon. At the urging of a fellow academic, he is contracted to an archaeological project involving a house stashed in a lunar cavern. As Theo excavates the house with the help of an augmented reality interface, he uncovers a secret hiding behind recorded history that, if misused, could threaten the uneasy peace between humanity and the emergent AIs. Theo’s quest will take him to a mall repurposed as a psychiatric hospital, see him pursued by dangerous megacorporations, ally him with a rogue freelancer, and discover a hidden off-world colony. It will also place him at the precipice, forced to make one final choice that threatens to plunge his life into chaos and upset the solar system’s fragile order.
It’s not a knock against Matthew de Abaitua to say The Destructives actively resists a single reading—it’s too complex and engrossing to read just once. Due to the nature of conspiracies and the way the book plays with AI tropes, memory, and consciousness, it begs for a second go-round, especially once you realize the massive forces at play. Read it once as mystery, a second time as tragedy: knowing exactly how things play out for Theo, and exactly how much of his struggle is his own fault, sheds new light on the narrative.
The setting is a rich cultural landscape that you’ll be aching to revisit anyway (it’s a loose cousin to his earlier works The Red Men and If Then, though each book in the “trilogy” can be read independently). The corporate structure borders on psychological warfare, with executives meeting each other in a entirely biological “bloodroom,” cloned out of their own DNA, for something called a “meta-meeting,” which involves reading the subtext and reactions of the other parties to manipulate them for psychological gain.
De Abaitua treats the Singularity as a kind of end of the world scenario, with most humans more preoccupied by entertainment and culture from “before” than creating anything new, a logical conclusion to be drawn from this sort of technopocalypse, since humanity’s last major breakthrough resulted in societal collapse and obsolescence.
Despite his massive ideas, De Abaitua’s control is remarkable; the book never gets bogged down in itself. The plot zips along in a relatively straightforward manner, even as characters’ memories are erased, their consciousnesses are rearranged, and parts of their brains are deactivated, but the story never once loses cohesion. Even at its most hallucinatory or obscure, The Destructives is deeply readable. If you’re going to break your brain, you should have a good time doing it.