By Marty Mulrooney
Golden State is the new novel from Ben H. Winters, international bestselling author of the The Last Policeman and Underground Airlines. Having previously written stories set within alternative realities – The Last Policeman trilogy took place in a world that was about to end, while Underground Airlines took place in a world where slavery was never abolished – Golden State instead looks to the future, where lies are forbidden and the truth must prevail at all costs.
The dissonance is close but not that close. It’s not at the booth directly behind me, where an old man and his old wife are discussing in their old slow voices the quality of their oatmeal: she thinks it’s worse than it used to be, he think it’s better, but both are speaking honestly.
They are both talking true, but someone in here is not.
The Golden State is a future world where everything is recorded and the worst crime you can commit is to lie. Laz Ratesic is a veteran of the Speculative Service, the Golden State’s special police. He is so good at sensing a lie, he can collar flagrant liars during his breakfast… and this is exactly how the book begins, with a plate of fried chicken and waffles going cold as Laz makes an arrest.
This is a world where everything is recorded; people end their days by bagging up a physical record of all their activities and conversations and placing it into a storage box. Privacy doesn’t matter to the Speculative Service; lies cannot and will not be tolerated. Laz’s brother was the best Speculator the Service ever had but he’s gone now, killed in the line of duty. Laz will never measure up in his own head, but he’s still good. Really good… which is why he ends up being saddled with a new Speculator called Paige.
“There is no one like you, Lazlo,” he says, imperturbable, flattering, shameless. “You know that. The Service needs you. Your State needs you. I need you.”
“Because you’re the best.”
“Stipulated. But listen.” He leans in closer. He lowers his voice. “This young lady is very special, Lazlo. I would like to see her mentored carefully. I need your help.”
Laz works alone but agrees to mentor Paige against his better judgement. Paige can sense lies just like Laz – better, even – minus the debilitating side-effects; she also reminds him of his dead brother. Soon, the unlikely pair find themselves investigating the death of a roofer… who fell off a roof. The flat facts suggest an accident, an open-and-shut case. Yet not everything adds up. For example: why would a roofer be on a roof when he’s not scheduled to work?
The roofer’s death soon starts to seem more like a murder and it is fascinating to join Laz and Paige as they navigate the Golden State (a futuristic, Big Brother-esque California in everything but name) throughout the course of their investigation. Ben H. Winters has the enviable talent of being able to conjure entire worlds from his imagination that are eerily similar to our own, while at the same time making them seem completely alien. The Golden State is a particularly apt and timely world to visit in 2019 as lies and truths crash together in the mass media on a daily basis; Donald Trump apparently lies 12 times on average every single day and fake news has never been more prevalent.
I have been carrying around the small light of my investigation, like a man cupping a candle under his palms, hoping for it to stay lit, and instead I’ve brought it to the one person with the power to snuff it out between two fingers. I don’t even look at Ms. Paige right now. I can’t. I can’t bear to watch her realize what I’ve done. What an idiot I am.
Unfortunately, the lies told early on by Mr. Winters are far more satisfying than the eventual truths that are revealed. The final chapters feel a bit forced and the story doesn’t quite manage to follow through on its early promise, with a few moments that feel unrealistic and out of place. Yet nobody writes speculative fiction like Ben H. Winters.
The most enjoyable aspect of Golden State is undoubtedly its intricate world-building – this is a compelling work of fiction in a world where fiction is outlawed. The story isn’t wrapped up in a neat little bow and there is certainly room left for a sequel; with so many more truths still yet to be revealed within the Golden State and the wasteland beyond, this reviewer would certainly welcome one.
8 OUT OF 10