In this modern world of literature where publishers thrive on series, it's rare for me to be given a solid standalone novel to read, but that's 'False Hearts' by Laura Lam. It does seem that it's half of a two-book deal with Tor that will see it followed by 'Shattered Minds', but this is a complete story that suggests no need for a sequel.
Of course, two is a magic number here. Our lead character, Taema Collins, is a former Siamese twin and her world and our story are shaped by that. Certainly the balance between plotting and worldbuilding is an admirable success here, in an obvious analogy to the Collins sisters, who retain much in common even as they live very different lives. It wouldn't surprise me to find 'Shattered Minds' playing the other half of a duology in a very similar way, retaining much that's the same but doing so in a completely different way. For instance, we don't need to see Taema or Tila Collins in the sequel for it to be one.
Taema and Tila are fantastic characters and they're a perfect example of how writers can craft characters thoroughly unlike any we've seen before without ever being gratuitous about their differences. Nobody's a token in 'False Hearts', whatever rabid morons might get the gumption to suggest. The Collins twins are of multi-racial descent (Samoan in particular is called out, as the names may suggest) and they were born in Mana's Hearth, a religious cult located in the waters off San Francisco, in which any technology newer than 1969 is strictly prohibited.
Given that we're in the second half of the 21st century, that's a big deal, and from this historic holdout they escape at sixteen into San Francisco, to be separated using advanced medical technology that gifts them each a mechanical heart to boot, given that the old one was shared and failing. The technology is a big success in this book, introduced not from our perspective where it seems radical but from that of the people who live in the nation of Pacifica, for whom it's routine: replicators, hovercars or moving tattoos, not to mention the internet of the future, navigated through thought and displayed by retinal implants. Another is a proliferation of flesh parlors, which are what plastic surgeons might be if they were as easy and convenient as nail salons are today.
And I should explain the location. The United States is no more, fractured forty years prior into a set of nations that aren't really relevant here. Pacifica is presumably the west coast, but including Hawaii. The company for which Taema works has offices in San Fran, LA, Portland and Honolulu. This separation is a good way to progress the progressives, so there's surveillance everywhere (and everyone has a VeriChip implant) but there are no murders. In fact, when Tila is arrested for committing precisely that crime, the cops flounder a little because they've forgotten how to deal with it. Pacifica has never had one. Oh, and the cops are nice. I liked that little touch. Pacifica is a more optimistic take on the location in 'Demolition Man', where the underground aren't rebels seeking freedom but criminals keeping a low profile.
All these things come into play in our story. Since their physical separation, Taema and Tila have gone in different directions. Taema works at Silvercloud Solutions, where she helped to design VivaFog, tech that extracts energy from the ever-present San Francisco fog and channels it to consumers on the coast. Tila, on the other hand, has been working at Club Zenith, where clients indulge in the drug Zeal, which works like lucid dreaming. Her victim, Zuk, was apparently one of her favourites. The cops believe that there's a connection to a newer, more dangerous drug called Verve, being pushed through a criminal organisation known as the Ratel, and, to investigate, they want Taema to masquerade as her sister, taking on her work and life.
As I write this review, I realise that I'm giving the impression of a cyberpunk sort of environment. That's true to a degree, but this doesn't feel like 'Neuromancer' where we're immersed in a future landscape of tech. We spend quite a bit of time in flashback in Mana's Hearth, showing how Taema and Tila grew up in a tech free landscape, well, until a tablet is smuggled in and they gain an insight into the world at large, a world that isn't the evil place they've always been taught. Even in the main storyline, with Taema trying to find out the truth behind the murder of Zuk, we have no trouble keeping up with the pace of life in an extrapolated future.
It's an interesting world and, like the best science fiction, it highlights ideas that are well worth a debate over beer, even if they're not crucial to the story. Of course, we've already done the post-scarcity debate to death, given that replicators like these were in 'Star Trek' half a century ago, but the flesh parlors have a lot of potential. The advancement of what we call plastic surgery to the point where these shops are on every street corner offering services at a reasonable price means that everyone in Pacifica looks perfect, which in turn renders the ideas of anonymity and individuality interesting concepts to play with. That's especially the case when our lead characters are former Siamese twins, brought up utterly different from everyone around them. Even post-separation, that awareness of having been different must have a firm grasp on their respective psyches. After all, they're different from everyone else, but they're so alike that they even share the same DNA, if not the same scars.
On a more prosaic level, I like the presentation of this novel in hardback by Tor. I don't know what fonts they used, but the regular timeline that follows Taema's investigation uses an elegant seriffed font, while the flashback chapters told in Tila's jail notebooks use a sans-serif font that's simple and clear.
I'm interested to see where Laura Lam will take this duology, or even this series if it comes to that, but it will surely be a completely different novel to this one. And that's fine. Maybe she can do something with this world like Max Gladstone has done with his Craft Sequence, moving from city to city with each book and gradually threading certain characters into new stories in new places, sometimes so surreptitiously that we don't even notice. After all, while the United States fractured, there's a unified Korea. I'm sure a story or two can spring out of that! ~~ Hal C F Astell