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One Heck of a Wild Ride

John Marrs
John Marrs
Del Rey
 416 Pages
The Passengers

We are tantalizingly close to the time when truly driverless automobiles will be a reality. For many, the thought of cars that serve as super-Ubers is a godsend, while for others, automotive versions of Murphy’s Law come to mind. The real-world consequences of AI-driven vehicles have troubled authors for years, including, notably, Michael Crichton in Jurassic Park (whose driverless cars stopped working in the wrong place at the wrong time). You can now add John Marrs to that list of concerned authors. In his new novel, The Passengers, Marrs imagines an England of the near future mostly without drivers, and the results are entertaining, frightening, and not all that far-fetched.


I have been a fan of John Marrs for several years, and when Tracy Fenton of Compulsive Readers asked me to take part in the blog tour for the paperback release of The Passengers in Great Britain, I was excited at the opportunity. As an added bonus for me in the United States, the book won’t be released here until later this summer, so I’ve got a couple of months head start on the rest of John’s American fans. My thanks go out to John, Tracy, and Penguin/Del Rey for inviting me to participate and providing me with an advance copy of the book.


The Passengers represents a bit of a departure from John’s usual thriller genre (although there are several thriller elements present). It’s a cautionary science fiction tale, like the aforementioned Jurassic Park or Michael Crichton’s earlier movie, Westworld. John has clearly done his homework on the technology he describes in The Passengers, and the book has the right feel to it (without getting bogged down in a swamp of cyber-details). More importantly, he has created a plausible legal, political, and technological infrastructure of the near future in which driverless cars rule the roads, thanks to various government incentives that impel most car owners to switch to totally AI-controlled vehicles. One significant development in the author’s driverless society (and this novel) is the advent of the Vehicle Inquest Jury. Gone are today’s ambulance-chasing attorneys, and in their place is a panel that investigates traffic accidents to determine whether the AI of the driverless vehicle or something else (usually some hapless pedestrian who can’t duck out of the way) was at fault. Not surprisingly, the jury rarely, if ever, find the car’s artificial intelligence at fault.


But, despite what the jury says, and as the powers-that-be in Jurassic Park, Westworld, and similar books and movies found out, “foolproof” artificial intelligence never is. In The Passengers, the glitch in the system is human, a hacker who imaginatively calls himself “the Hacker,” and who seizes control one morning of eight seemingly random vehicles occupied by eight mostly terrified individuals. The Hacker’s goal, as he informs his hostages, is to cause all their cars to collide at high speed, causing one spectacular accident, with the resulting publicity exposing all the failings of the driverless auto industry. The Hacker has also gotten into other government computer systems as well, making it very difficult for the authorities to prevent the collision.


For me, the most fascinating sections of The Passengers are those that describe in detail the futuristic world based on the author’s central premise. In that world, the glut of driverless vehicles is accompanied by a wide variety of consequences, large and small. One minor (and very believable) development is the automakers’ tendency to quit providing software upgrades to older vehicles, in essence forcing people to buy new cars. Other aspects of the driverless society have far more severe societal consequences, as the author gradually reveals. John Marrs has some other technological targets in the book as well, particularly our fascination with social media. As soon as the government officials discover what the Hacker has done, they summon a social media expert, aptly named Cadman, to report on just how the story is playing in the Twitterverse.


Compared to the head-shaking, thought-provoking technical setup in The Passengers, the book’s human characters don’t make nearly as significant an impact on readers. The story starts somewhat slowly, with the author revealing a few background details about some of the characters. The only potential victim who was interesting to me was an elderly has-been actress (sort of a C-level Maggie Smith), who is convinced for much of the book that she’s actually taking part in a celebrity reality TV series. The main character in the novel, though, isn’t one of the unfortunate passengers, but, instead, Libby Dixon, an ordinary citizen who is summoned for Vehicle Inquest Jury duty that week to sit alongside the various special interest bureaucrats, and who eventually becomes the proxy conscience for readers.


Although the prospect of a remote-controlled multicar pileup while the whole world watches is pretty suspenseful all by itself, the author soon ratchets up the tension even more. After the Hacker reveals his plans to the world, he also offers a way out, at least for one passenger. He allows the jury and the social media world at large to select one passenger whom the Hacker will then save from his or her imminent demise. What follows is John Marrs at his devious, twisting best. The author is an expert at springing surprises on his readers, and his gotcha machine is working overtime here. For, just as it appears that one of the passengers is an especially decent person deserving a reprieve, the Hacker reveals an extra detail or two about that individual that paints a considerably less savory picture. The jury’s deliberation process becomes a primer, courtesy of John Marrs, on today’s rush-to-judgment, social media driven, herd mentality psychology. The resulting spectacle is also as entertaining as the best legal thrillers, with the Hacker expertly shifting opinion back and forth as he reveals each skeleton in a passenger’s closet, leaving the members of the jury in the lurch as they struggle to keep up.


However, the author’s use of the passengers (who, it becomes clear, were carefully selected by the Hacker) to prove a point comes at the expense of creating fully lived-in characters. I never really felt as close to them as I have with some of the characters in his other books. In particular, the book’s lead villain, an odious MP (that’s Member of Parliament for us Americans) is so consistently nasty as to become a mustache-twirling caricature. Libby, who gradually develops the backbone to stand up to the other jury members, is a likable character but not memorable enough to carry the book by herself.


The Passengers doesn’t have the same sharply drawn, distinctive characters as you will find in some of John Marrs’s other books, but, like a high-speed trip in a driverless car, it’s a heck of an exciting thrill ride and an even better speculative tale of the future. I figured out one or two of the twists here, but others left me dumbfounded (and to the author’s credit, the twists were never gratuitous but always an integral part of the plot). John also provides an extra-large Easter egg for his long-time readers, as one of his earlier novels, The One, works its way into the story here. I wouldn’t want to ride in one of John Marrs’s driverless cars, but, once again, I’m glad to have him chauffeur me through another one of his novels.

Check out our reviews of some of John Marrs's other books:

John Marrs is a former journalist from Northamptonshire, England, who spent 25 years interviewing celebrities from the world of television, film and music for national newspapers and magazines. He wrote for publications including The Guardian’s Guide and Guardian Online; OK! Magazine; Total Film; Empire; Q; GT; The Independent; Star; Reveal; Company; Daily Star and News of the World’s Sunday Magazine. He recently gave up his job to write novels full time. 

John is the author of bestsellers Her Last MoveThe One (chosen as the book of the month for BBC Radio 2's Book Club), The Good Samaritan (shortlisted for the Dead Good Reader Awards 2018), When You Disappeared, and Welcome to Wherever You Are. This summer, filming begins on a ten-part TV series of The One, set to broadcast on Netflix worldwide in early 2020. 


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