(2018) Brandon Sanderson, Gollancz, £10.99, hrdbk, 129pp, ISBN 978-1-473-22499-5
Anthony and Chaz are police detectives operating in an ultra high-tech reconstruction of a specific day a few days ago of the city of New Clipperton: they are literally in a snapshot in time. By investigating this recent past using their knowledge of where and when a crime was committed in the real world, they can obtain additional clues and perhaps even see the criminal (or a copy thereof) in the act. This information can then be used by their fellow police officers in the real world.
Of course things are not as easy as that. Only the very recent past can have a snapshot taken. Also, the presence of real people within the snapshot, and interacting with snapshot folk, causes deviations from reality. This last is why only small undercover teams like Anthony and Chaz are used: less intrusion and interaction, hence less deviation.
However the crimes they seem to investigate seem comparatively mundane until, that is, they stumble upon the results of a mass killing. Yet for some reason HQ does not seem that interested. This piques Anthony and Chaz's curiosity and they decide to investigate on the QT. Soon they are on the track of a deranged and psychotic killer…
Snapshot is an engaging novella that explores the cyberpunk trope of artificial reality, a technological recreation of reality. Yes, we have been here before with books like Alistair Reynolds' Century Rain (2004) and Egan's Permutation City (1994) or films such as 1999s Thirteenth Floor (trailer here) – itself based upon Simulacron-3 (1964), a novel by Daniel F. Galouye – which is a rather good offering short-listed for a Saturn Award 'Best Film' but which lost to The Matrix (trailer here) which itself deals with an artificial historical reality. In addition we must not forget that the trope of artificial realities has appeared a number of times in television including famously Star Trek: Next Generation's holo-deck and, here with regards to Snapshot, notably the season six episode 'Ship in a Bottle'.
Yet though this SF trope is not new, and previously explored a good number of times, Sanderson's treatment is reasonably fresh in that the technological recreation of the recent past is used to solve crime. Further, there are a couple of twists of which one is a bit of a favourite with stories of this ilk but the other was rather neat; well, I didn't see it coming.
Importantly, as you may have guessed – if you pay attention to the publication details heading this reviews – from this book's page count that this is a novella. The great thing about novellas is that you can have the bare bones of a novel as a quick read. The flipside of this, though, is that a fair bit has to give be it world-building, detailed trope exploration, characterisation, etc. The trick is to ensure that whatever bare bones are presented do form a sensibly articulated skeleton even if we do not get fully fleshed out novel. In this instance we have to take the technology and raison d'etre of Snapshot's creation largely for granted; don't think about it but get on with the story. And if you do want to have some thought-provoking contemplation, then at its heart one of the things this story is about is the question of free will in a Newtonian universe (is it deterministic and what of comabatibilism and incomatibilism)? Whatever else, be assured, Sanderson has given us a great quick read.
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