The Rig, Roger Levy’s (Icarus) return to science fiction after 12 years, is about many, many things (murder and madness, science and religion, colonization and societal collapse), but mostly, it’s a novel about connections. Not just between the four disparate narratives, which slowly converge in a confrontation on the titular Rig—but between its characters and the systems they use and are a part of. As it traces a conspiracy that spans worlds, the book becomes a thoughtful consideration of the invisible threads that tie together humans, technology, belief, and memory. If a story concerned with interrelating, intricate systems sounds overly mannered and fussy, never mind—the structure also serves to open up a whole universe, and keep the light, twisty plot moving across multiple viewpoints and timelines.
On the backwater world of Gehenna, two boys—computer prodigy Alef and a budding sociopath named Pellonhorc—find themselves caught up in a conflict that will change history. Elsewhere in the System, on a border world known as Bleak, a cynical cop chases a spree killer into the maze of sewer tunnels, and instead encounters a web of corruption and conspiracy. The killer’s intended victim, a loner afflicted with disturbing, intrusive thoughts, is outfitted with expensive cybernetic implants and is goaded towards a dangerous job on a distant mining rig on the edge of Bleak’s ocean. And a reporter caught up in the play between cop, killer, and victim finds herself investigating a dark conspiracy, spurred on by her strangely human AI helper, which seems to have designs of its own. All of these characters will converge on on that rig for one sudden, violent confrontation that will decide not only their fates, but that of the System—and even the technology that keeps this future society humming along.
Showing without telling overmuch, Levy uses the way things interrelate to trace out a vision of humanity’s future in which continual surveillance has made possible AfterLife, a social media network where people can watch replays of every moment in a dead person’s life like a TV show, and vote on whether they want that person to be resurrected. Distant worlds are linked by the Song, a complex, internet-like structure spread out across the System, allowing the characters to interact, and we how the various sites under the umbrella of AfterLife help (or hinder) them as the follow the clues spread out around them. And the web of intrigue is certainly complex—an early chapter in Alef’s story sees him manipulating the entire economic structure of a crimelord’s empire like a complex game, and that is only one small part of a much larger story. AfterLife, the infrastructure of Bleak, and interpersonal relationships between characters, all become intermeshed, in a rather brilliant fusion of universe-building and plot development.
The novel’s structure is as intricate as the world. The story starts on Gehenna, a place cut off from the System surrounding it both ideologically (it’s the one place in the galaxy where spiritual belief is still practiced) and technologically—the planet is governed by a repressive theocracy governed by homicidal priests. Several recurring elements are introduced there—Alef’s connections with water and computers, the sadistic games his friend makes him play—before we branch off into the wider universe, onto Bleak, and deeper into the System itself. As Levy jumps from viewpoint to viewpoint, more and more connection are stablished between the three primary characters on Bleak, and the boys back on Gehenna. The plot keeps narrowing, stringing together characters and genre tropes, until, one by one, it ties off every loose end, and circles back upon itself on the rig, ending with an echoing of the opening chapters, a satisfying, violent exercise in illustrating a theme.
The Rig is a haunting novel, set in a weird future that reflects on how we connect with other people and technology today. Reading it is like following a train of thought (or maybe falling down a Wikipedia hole); one seemingly random occurrence leads to another, a stimulus triggering a sense memory, and it is only at a remove that the logical path snaking from start to finish becomes clear. It’s a mystery built by the meshing of a thousand small interactions, which manages to be more than the sum of any one of them. Both breathlessly paced and thoughtful (often in the same chapter), world-weary but stubbornly optimistic, it is possibly one of the most intriguing works of science fiction you’ll encounter this year.