Tuesday, August 27, 2019

The Passengers, by John Marrs

Berkley, ISBN 9781984806970, August 2019

It's near-future Britain, and self-driving cars with no human override have become the norm. They will soon be the only legal vehicles. There are a lot of benefits. Most importantly, because the cars communicate with each other, there is far less traffic congestion and far fewer accidents.

But what happens when something goes wrong? When there is a crash, and a Passenger or a pedestrian is killed? Who is at fault?

There's a jury system, and juries are composed mostly of experts and representatives of interest groups, with only one member of the general public.

This week, that member of the general public is Libby Dixon, a mental health nurse who deeply distrusts self-driving cars, indeed AI of all sorts, and does her best to minimize her use of it and exposure to it. Her first couple of days on the jury have not increased her trust, as they seem to rush through cases without sufficient evidence and always, always, the jury decides that a dead or injured pedestrian or someone whose property was destroyed by a car avoiding another car is the person ultimately to blame. And then all the techie goodness in their jury room is taken over by "the hacking collective."

With all the conflict in the jury room, they are now also dealing with a third party, eight hijacked cars each with one hapless Passenger, each of whom has a dark secret.

The self-driving cars have been hacked and set on a collision course. In two and half hours, they will collide and kill all of the Passengers--all except one.

And the jurors have to vote on who the one survivor will be--with one additional vote being cast by the public collectively on social media.

One car is blown up to prove the hijackers can. One car is blown up when a crowd tries to rescue the Passenger. One car is blown up when the hijackers demand that the jurors choose one Passenger to die, or all the cars will be blown up.

And then the jurors are required to each pick a Passenger to interview, to make their best case for why they should be the Passenger to be saved from the mass collision that will kill the rest.

In each case, we learn dark things about the Passenger, but without much detail or background. The married couple traveling to their separate work locations in separate cars? The husband has two wives and someone is blackmailing him over it--and the wife in the other car is the secret blackmailer, punishing him for the betrayal. The aging actress, long considered a national treasure, has been protecting her husband from being discovered and prosecuted as the pedophile he is. The woman who is seven months pregnant with a baby she and her husband have long wanted has her husband's dead body in the trunk of the car.

But each of these dark secrets is sprung by the hijackers at the end of the ten minutes each of the passengers gets to defend themselves, with no opportunity to explain or clarify their motives. Or, indeed, what is really going on.

And of course, in the process, we're also learning a great deal about the jurors, and what criteria the self-driving cars apply to decide who lives and who dies.

This is a dark and fascinating character study as well as a thriller.

Completely absorbing. I honestly couldn't put it down, and I really don't like dark books. This is extremely well done, and drew me in though I didn't want it to.


I received a free electronic galley of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, and am reviewing it voluntarily.

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