When Steven Spielberg came to make his film of Minority Report, the instruction he gave to his production designers was to make use of existing buildings and make them just look a little older. That, just because the story was set in the future, he reasoned we still lived in buildings 100 years old, and that ethos wouldn’t be any different in many decades time.
Simon Mayo’s latest novel, Blame, utilises a similar approach. The world he sets his slightly futuristic story in is eerily familiar, probably even more so than when he started writing the book. He uses familiar names and locations. He has a tootle down the motorway at one point. There’s much of modern Britain here, just framed from a slightly different angle.
We’re in a dystopia of sorts, where society’s thirsting for scapegoats and people to blame has skipped back a generation. Hence: heritage crime, where subsequent generations that have benefitted from the criminal behaviour of their parents and grandparents must serve time for the sins of their elders.
Caught in the midst of this are Ant and Matty, a sister and brother who are housed in ‘Spike’. Spike is the family wing of a huge, amalgamated prison by the name HMP London, and it’s clear very early on that this is a prison close to breaking point. Corruption is rife, unease is everywhere, and the assorted drones and cameras are keeping an eye on what pretty much everyone is doing.
Mayo swiftly sets this up (no small feat, I’d argue), supplying a glossary of the prison slang he uses right up front. He switches languages with real skill, although I can’t say I found myself referring to said glossary while I was reading. In truth, there was an element of hanging on, as the story continually tore forward.
For this is a breathless, fast, furious piece of work, underpinning the story of an unusual family and the terrors of prison with political themes that seems really rather relevant. The best science fiction takes what we have now and plots just where that could go, and Mayo’s come up with a world that feels like it could just be years, rather than decades or centuries in our future.
It’s an unflinching world too, and whilst Itch – Mayo’s previous fictional creation – was aimed a little younger, Blame is a hard-as-nails young adult piece. It’s in the tone more than anything. There’s a key, prolonged sequence that’s full of peril, danger and material to test how quickly you can turn pages. Near the end – and I’m staying well clear of spoilers here – there’s a further sequence that had me wincing at the sheer cruelty of it. It’s a harsh read at times, and it’s worth being aware of that before opening the cover.
Crucially, it’s also a book with a character to really, really root for. Ant is the real highlight here, a complex 16-year old girl, social niceties long since knocked off by a society that’s punishing her in many ways for things she’s had no control over. When the focus is away from her, you really feel it too: Ant is the driving force, and it’s she you yearn to spend time with.
I tore through Blame. It inevitably – given a plot point that the book jacket reveals but I won’t – loses just a little momentum once its central sequence is complete. There’s quick compensation for that with a smaller, really tense moment that follows, but Mayo then has to crank things back up again for his finale, which he duly does. And he does it with a satisfying ending, a plot moment that clearly sits close to his heart, and the feeling of a world that still warrants further exploration.
Oh, and in Assessor Grey there’s a foe who we may not get too many glimpses of – and there are shades of Kermode when we do – but what we do get is really quite unsettling. For those who have watched their fair share of prison movies, perhaps less so. But for the book’s target audience? Mayo doesn’t give the impression of punches pulled.
It’s fiction with something to say this is, but with its eye on keeping readers engrossed in it. I enjoyed Blame a lot, and hope that further books will explore its world further. Best not show a copy to the leader writers at the Daily Mail, though. They might just think all of this is a good idea…
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