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The Minders
by John Marrs
Berkley, $17.00, 416pp
Published: February 2021

A recent thread online, talking about the horror genre, complained about every book being part of a series nowadays. I find the same problem with science fiction, so many interesting books showing up to review that are volume five or volume ten in a series that I haven't read. Well, John Marrs writes a lot of what I'd call science fiction thrillers and he has the solution. Every novel of his that I read, and I think this is only the second after 'The Passengers', seems to be a standalone novel but also part of a series.

What that means is that he's conjured up a near future Britain which he's exploring in stages across a series of books, but each one of them features a new and different set of characters engaging with a new and different facet of what he's changed from our own reality, with those changes evolving from the previous ones. This is at least his eighth novel and I have no idea how many of them tie together, but this just as clearly set in the same world as 'The Passengers' as 'The Passengers was clearly set in the same world as 'The One'.

'The One' looked at a social change in Match Your DNA. Apparently we really do have one soulmate to share our life with and the details of that are coded in a particular gene. After a company figures out which gene and brings a product to market to allow us to identify our soulmate, it naturally becomes a sensation but a sensation that inherently changes society. It's a book club sort of book because, once you've read it, you'll want to talk about the ramifications with other people who have read it.

'The Passengers' works the same way. There are self-driving cars on our streets already, though we're still early in the progression of that technology. Marrs takes it a step further, to the point where they have become the norm but then throws in a hacker collective who take remote control of a few of the cars to expose secrets behind how the technology is being controlled, in a notably grand way.

Both those ideas make new appearances here, evolving a little further again, but the core focus is on another technology. Perhaps emboldened by the success of the hackers in 'The Passengers', more and more hacking is being done. Entire countries are being held to ransom and their secret data is at risk. The British government decides to protect its data by taking a radical step—encoding its secrets into the DNA of a carefully recruited group of synaesthetes. After all, what is DNA if not incredibly concise and cleverly redundant data storage?

There are five Minders, ordinary people one and all, who have a desire for a fresh start and who have brains that function in a particular compatible way, as demonstrated by how quickly they solve a well-shared puzzle. We're introduced to each of them separately and they spend most of the book apart, a requirement for the program. They're given fake identities, training to deal with any leakage of this tech, and credit cards to secret bank accounts to finance their new lives. Off they go to different parts of the country to start afresh, without any connection to their past lives.

And, of course, while this wacky scheme kinda sorta works, it affects each of the five minders, one of whom turns out to not be what he purports to be, albeit not in the way you might expect, in different ways; each of which is fascinating. In one of them, the information is bleeding through into conscious thought, which is wild, especially for a conspiracy theorist. In another, people detailed within secrets show up almost like multiple personalities, conversing and giving opinions. In a third, the procedure to implant the data cut off all his connection to pain and emotion.

Marrs carefully tells us that there are five Minders and then introduces us to four people, but one is not like the others, so we have questions immediately. As with 'The Passengers', we know that Marrs is setting up twists and turns and we try to figure them out, but I, at least, was kept on the hook until very late in the novel. That's one of his core strengths, it seems. Another is characterisation, because the four characters we know are Minders are at once a little similar, a lot different and equally deep.

Flick Kennedy is a London restaurateur who's emotionally broken because her Match is a serial killer. She escapes through the program to Aldeburgh, Suffolk, but finds a romantic connection there that's a little unwise. Charlie Nicholls, a graphic designer in Portsmouth, is struggling to deal with the guilt over losing all his friends as collateral damage in 'The Passengers'. His new start is in Manchester but he struggles to cope with the procedure rendering him emotionless. Sinéad Kelly escapes an abusive controlling relationship in Bristol for a Scottish village called Edzell, but her attempts to help people backfire on her.

At least, they're all valid Minders. Bruno Yorke is not, because it was really his autistic son who solved the puzzle that got him invited to the program. Beyond being a liar and a cheat, he's also a murderer, because what drives him is revenge. His wife was one of the victims in 'The Passengers', leaving him a single dad, but, because she was cheating on him at the time, as seen in video footage, the insurance won't pay out and he's now in financial trouble. Therefore he's storing the nation's secrets while he's creating new ones in his quest for revenge.

The fifth character is a question mark. We believe she's called Emilia and she seems to be an amnesiac who was kidnapped and found and damaged and... well, we can assume a lot but we don't know much. In the hospital, her husband comes for her and explains her back story, but she doesn't recognise him and others seem keen to point out that he isn't what he says he is and that he's dangerous. And, of course, if she doesn't know who's telling the truth, we don't, so we have to sit back with this plot strand to let it develop. Oh boy, does it develop!

I liked 'The Passengers' a great deal. It didn't seem to do much at all but it was massively effective. It perpetrated the time-honoured science fiction trick of taking the present day, tweaking it just a little and exploring what would change. However, it did so with a notable amount of style, a thriller built as an unwanted reality show with secrets behind every door. 'The Minders' tells its similarly separate but connected stories in a similarly stylish way, but without the showboating; where that story unfolded on every television in the country, this one unfolds entirely out of the eye of the public, but with just as much importance and just as much drama.

And, like that book, I want to attend a book club that's covering it this month, because I want to talk about the ramifications. That's the best thing of all about John Marrs. We could talk down his drama as soapy. We could talk down some of his characters as convenient or unlikely. We could talk down his core ideas as unrealistic. Or, of course, we could talk all of those up for the same reasons. But, at the end of the day, he starts and finishes a story but leaves us with so many ramifications that we have to talk to someone about them. So go read it and then drop me an e-mail. We'll connect. ~~ Hal C F Astell

For more titles by John Marrs click here

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