A novice police officer officer assigned to guard a refugee group tries to find out if the refugees have been subjected to terrorism – and where the real killers are lurking. Technically, this is an accurate description of the plot of David Musgrave’s debut novel, Lambda. Sounds like a pretty straightforward pot, right? But from its first page, Lambda is up to something stranger and more unwieldy, rejects a linear narrative and puts the story in an alternate universe UK where you can get into trouble with the police for damaging a talking toothbrush.
IN Lambda‘s bizarro world 2019, there has been progress in artificial intelligence to the point that “feeling objects” have been granted rights, including said toothbrush, also known as ToothFriendIV. Meanwhile, the police are testing an AI system that will both charge someone with a crime and go ahead and murder them, although the government prefers to call this mitigation, neutralization, deactivationor closure of the Agency. It may sound like a Philip K. Dick pastiche, but Musgrave’s debut is more ambitious than the tropics it borrows, arranging them for original, arresting literary sci-fi.
Lambda follows an officer named Cara Gray as she becomes overly familiar with the official jargon for murder. She joins the force after abruptly changing the life of an activist in a left-wing municipality out with detective work, and then ends up in a shady government program involving a rogue state cybercrime paradise in the desert called the Republic of Severax. Her personal life is as messy as her professional intricacies. She dates a misanthropic coder named Peter who is obsessed with two things that none of them are: a talking toothbrush and Severax. (Mouse graves shadows in a fine portrait of a certain type of dirtbag technology with Peter, whose main personality trait is interrupting documentaries to add his two cents.)
Cara is no futuristic Colombo – she’s remarkable, touchingly bad at her job. After her first job as a police officer goes awry, she is moved on to a project that monitors lambdas, a population of about 100,000 mysterious people who are genetically human but evolved to be minimal in size and semi-aquatic, with tails instead of legs and an unfathomable social structure. By the time she is put on this beat, there has already been widespread institutional effort to integrate these lambdas into society. We learn that they began arriving on the coasts of Iceland and Britain several years earlier, with only vague knowledge of how they got there. They know that they swam from somewhere and that their journey involved avoiding hungry Greenland sharks; some of them talk vaguely about their parents, known only as the “four fertile couples”.
In the years since they began popping up, the lambdas have assumed a status similar to refugees, with state aid to help them get around and find housing and jobs. But the anti-lambda mood continues to grow as Cara gets to know the besieged population, who live in deliberately flooded basement apartments and refer to each other as “brothers” and “sisters”. They are often attacked in transit for their low-paid service jobs, and many have become crooked. Cara ties up with an eccentric, friendly lambda named Gavin, who is desperate to learn more about her parents – and whose fear of being murdered by anger, xenophobic “landy” vigilantes grows with each passing day. Although her supervisor explicitly forbids it, Cara agrees to get in touch with an Icelandic researcher who might be able to help Gavin discover his sunken roots.
It’s a lot of plot to follow, and Musgrave’s stylistic choices are as Byzantine as his narrative. Using foreign characters as an allegory for an oppressed population is not exactly groundbreaking – it probably accounts for about half of sci-fi – but the writing itself is crisp, brave and proudly strange. The passages that follow Cara’s journey from activist to police officer and almost back again are interrupted by pages of commercial breaks that inform the reader of where we are with our “free trial of EyeNarrator Pro.” (These pieces give a strong tingle to George Saunders’ short stories.) The introductory EyeNarrator passage indicates that the story we are reading is software-generated prose, and Musgrave suggests this not entirely human narrative through conspicuously strange language choices. The characters’ blood pressure levels are mentioned, and movements are described in a strange technical language: “Carolyn turned 12 degrees counterclockwise” reads a sentence. Another: “Cara’s eye cascades took the woman’s highly reflective brown iris.” This book may have set the world record in the use of the word “saccade”, which appears with surprising frequency, given that it is something no one ever says.
There are also a number of monologues – the book opens and closes with them, and they are sprinkled all over it – from a mysterious character named “Mr. Hi.” These stilted, melancholy monologues describe Mr. Hello’s unconventional upbringing and lonely lifestyle and are reminiscent of the host interview scenes in Westworld, when the naive robots merrily rattle off truths they can not really access. In fact, tonally, Lambda has a lot in common with Westworld, for better or worse – it’s crowded, smart, sometimes heavy and sometimes it’s completely off track. The biggest disappointment of Lambda is its ending, which lacks the satisfactory wrapping of a real crime yarn in class A. Instead, it leaves many loose ends – a whole fringe of lost plot points.
Yet, where it fails to solve its mysteries effectively, Lambda dazzles in its ingenuity and ability to conjure up mood. I only just read it for the first time last week and I already barely remember the tough ending. But Musgrave’s evocative images from an unmanageable world will linger.