I must admit that reading the first few pages of this novel, by American author Grothaus, I thought 372 pages of this… will I make it to the end? Something I would do my best to do because I’d signed up for the blog tour.
Well something clicked and I couldn’t put the book down. I’m not saying I then sped through it, as it isn’t that kind of novel, but I became emotionally engaged with the three main characters and I savoured every page thereon in. I’d better tell you something about it, however, that’s not going to be a lot as I can’t possibly tell you what the big secret is! If you read spec fiction tech thrillers, you may read between the lines, but I’m not saying anything explicit about the crux of the plot, but yes, there is a significance to the toaster on the front cover.
Beautiful Shining People is set some decades in the future – the feel is Blade Runner-ish, with skies full of drones, shops full of bots, but it’s neon-bright rather than so moody. Our setting is Tokyo, and John, a seventeen-year-old tech genius in quantum coding is suffering from jetlag in his hotel suite. He’s in Tokyo to sign with Sony over his quantum coded app; the deal is still some days away, so what is he to do in the meantime? It’s late in the evening, but he won’t sleep, so he goes out, walking the cold streets aimlessly, when he finds a cafe still open, and advertising ear cleaning, which sounds like something he needs. He manages to communicate this to the girl and settles down for the treatment.
That’s when a cold disquiet hits me: is this something only perverts do here? Getting a pretty girl to clean a part of your body? I don’t think it is … but what if I’m wrong? Then again, she’s the one giving the cleaning, so she can’t think it’s too creepy.
The treatment relaxes him so much he manages to leave his backpack behind and has to return the next day, being formally introduced to Neotnia, Goeido a former sumo wrestler, and his weird dog Inu, who has a spherical haircut! John and Neotnia strike up some sort of friendship, (Goeido doesn’t approve, naturally, being a father figure to the girl, John will have to prove himself).
John comes from a damaged family, which probably led to him becoming the coding genius he us, but also profoundly affected him in other ways too; he has additional reasons for being in Tokyo other than his deal. Neotnia confides to him that her father is missing, but that is not her biggest secret either. Unravelling Neotnia’s past will take the trio on a quest from Toyko to Hiroshima and on to snowy Nagano in the second half of the novel, and John is the only person that can help.
Grothaus is known for his concerns about cyber-abuse, he has written widely about deep-fakes, and makes Goeido a victim of that – why else would a former sumo champion be reduced to running a cafe? Goeido was such a wonderful supporting character, I loved him. The wider topic of cyber-ethics is also a part of the narrative, and this is something Grothaus explores through John’s potential deal with a mega-corporation – can they be trusted to only use it for good?
It was wonderful to see the early stages of John and Neotnia’s friendship develop, egged on by Joe, a nonagenarian American in a care home where she volunteers, taking John to visit.
‘But surely,’ I say, watching a smile grow across Neotnia’s face, ‘she must have other outside interests. Her life can’t be just working and walks and volunteering.’
Joe gives me a look. ‘Is “outside interests” code for “boys she likes?”
I feel my face go warm, but Joe just rolls his eyes when I don’t respond.
Once I got past those initial pages, I really enjoyed this novel so much. As a reader who particularly seeks out speculative fiction and likes a techno-thriller, I found the ethical debate that underlies the plot particularly thought-provoking. But Beautiful Shining People‘s high-tech future scenario is, in a way, merely a setting for a deeply interesting relationship drama – and you don’t need to be a spec-fiction afficionado to appreciate the ‘human’ story within. I loved it.
Source: Review copy – Thank you! Orenda paperback original, 372 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)