Review: The Passengers by John Marrs

Review: The Passengers by John MarrsThe Passengers by John Marrs
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss, publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, thriller
Pages: 352
Published by Berkley Books on August 27, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

You're riding in your self-driving car when suddenly the doors lock, the route changes and you have lost all control. Then, a mysterious voice tells you, "You are going to die."

Just as self-driving cars become the trusted, safer norm, eight people find themselves in this terrifying situation, including a faded TV star, a pregnant young woman, an abused wife fleeing her husband, an illegal immigrant, a husband and wife, and a suicidal man.

From cameras hidden in their cars, their panic is broadcast to millions of people around the world. But the public will show their true colors when they are asked, "Which of these people should we save?...And who should we kill first?"

My Review:

One of the fascinating things about The Passengers is the way that it starts out by seeming to expose the so-called evils of artificial intelligence, only to turn the whole thing around and end up exposing the very definite evils of human beings.

While taking the reader, just like the titular passengers, on an edge-of-your-seat, can’t-stop-watching thrill ride every mile (and page) of the way.

Of course, the reader can at least take a bathroom break – admittedly while carrying the book with them – while those passengers are locked into their supposedly self-driving cars for the entire 2.5 hour journey – except for the ones who die along the way.

I say supposedly self-driving because in this particular scenario, they really aren’t. Not that there is someone sitting behind the wheel, but there is certainly someone, or a whole bunch of someones, hiding behind their computer screens and directing all of the action. An action with a very definite purpose even if it’s not the one that everyone watching – and EVERYONE is definitely watching – believes that there is.

At first, this seems like a story about technology run amok. Driver-less cars have been mandated by the government and they seem like a mostly unquestioned good with very little downside.

But just as every cloud has a silver lining, every silver lining also has a cloud.

Libby Dixon is part of that cloud. Both in that she has grave doubts about the degree to which “Big Brother” is watching everyone in general and specific doubts about the supposed wonderfulness of driver-less cars in specific.

She’s still traumatized by an accident she witnessed, where a driver-less car protected its passenger by mowing down a mother, grandmother and baby in the street rather than crash into empty parked cars by the side of the road. Libby is just certain there was another choice – a choice that a human driver would have made that a soulless machine did not. Or could not. Or was programmed not to.

In spite of her skepticism about the efficacy of driver-less cars, she’s been summoned to serve on the secret jury that determines whether, in the case of one of the supposedly rare accidents involving one of those supposedly safe driver-less cars, the AI driving the car was at fault – or whether the fault rests with the humans who seem to have gotten in its way.

The jury seems to always decide in favor of the AI. After one day on the jury, Libby is all too aware that the decisions are not based on any facts, but on the ability of the politician in charge of this farce to cow or bully any dissenting voices in the small group.

And then the Hacker Collective steps in, taking over what initially appears to be a random selection of 8 driver-less cars occupied by frantic passengers, hijacking them onto a one-way trip to an unknown destination – where they will crash – and burn.

As the entire world watches, the darkest secrets of those 8 passengers as well as the members of the formerly secret jury are laid bare, live and in real time, as the Hacker Collective plays with everyone’s emotions and the world watches from every news station and social media outlet on the planet.

In the end, a hero emerges – and a villain. Only the dead are silent.

But what was it all for?

Escape Rating A+: First of all, the thing about science fiction (and fantasy, for that matter) is that no matter what we say we’re talking about, whether elves or aliens or androids, we’re always really talking about people. Because that’s all we really know.

And that’s a big part of what happens in this book. Both in the sense that the viewing, listening and tweeting mass audience identifies with those human passengers and not the cars that seem to be driving them, but also in the sense that it’s not and never has been the AI that driving those cars – but rather the humans who created and programmed that AI.

And the humans who exploited that programming. We have met the enemy, and it’s not artificial intelligence or robots or androids, it’s always us.

There are, in fact, at least two sets of villains in this piece – or really three. The third is the mob mentality that drives so many of those people watching, listening and tweeting. They are all hiding behind the anonymity of their screens and keyboards, making just the kind of disgusting comments that have become part of 21st century life. And while I could say that it’s just that this time there are actual lives in the balance, there are always lives in the balance. Maybe not people who will die in an exploding car because of those inhumane comments, but certainly people whose lives and livelihoods and self-esteem and careers and relationships are exploded because the ones hiding behind the keyboards feel like they can divorce themselves from the results of their actions and their hateful commentary.

The second villain is the obvious one, the Hacker Collective that has set the immediate events of the story in motion. They have kidnapped 8 seemingly innocent people and sent them on a collision course with death. That those 8 people are not, in fact, innocent is all part of the story. And it’s the story that is playing out in the international media.

Underneath the obvious crime, is the one that the Hacker Collective wants to expose. And it’s not the crimes that those supposedly innocent people have actually committed – although that’s certainly considered a benefit by the faceless group.

It’s a crime that feels both climactic and anti-climactic at the same time. The way it is exposed is very definitely climactic, but the nature of it is anticlimactic and shocking in its anticlimax. We’re not surprised at the rot that is at the heart of it all. Only that the Collective had to go to that much deadly trouble to expose it.

But watching it all play out is guaranteed to keep you on the edge of your seat from the seemingly innocent beginning to the destructive conclusion, until you fall off that edge in shock – and relief that it wasn’t real. Or isn’t real – yet.

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