One of the most successful things about The Passengers harkened back to my university days. I recall my lecturer, when discussing effective sci-fi, talked about extrapolating something from the current world into some extreme, and taking the story from there. It’s an approach I find a lot more rewarding than the usual galaxies and asteroids that science fiction is usually, inaccurately, ascribed to.
The Passengers extrapolates a multitude of prescient ideas from 21st century society that make for an engaging, believable and thrilling adventure. It’s a decent mix of ideas also, that may sound disparate but do gel together for a thrilling yarn.
Firstly, the idea of the driverless car – after over a century of innovation with automobiles, finally the human element is dispensed with. This is a technology that’s still in the ascendancy today, but taking strides ever closer to what is predicted in The Passengers. Indeed, one of the backstory threads – that all non-driverless cars have ultimately been outlawed – deals with one of the main teething issues experienced at the cutting edge of this technology – interaction with other cars, and the unpredictability of their human operators.
By removing this unpredictable element of human interaction, driverless cars are portrayed as the holy grail to an efficient personal transport system, largely devoid of the chaos and disorder that comes from having a human behind the wheel. The machinery and artificial intelligence simply runs to a set of rules, though an interesting twist that comes about toward the mid to latter stages of the book is quite what those rules are.
Of course, a decent sci-fi thriller takes an ordinary idea and asks one question: what if…? In The Passengers, this question is posed to be what if the driverless cars that have no manual override get hacked? We begin by following a group of seemingly-normal citizens from a cross-section of society getting in their cars, as Passengers, from therein the fun begins.
But the second societal notion that The Passengers plays with is social media and the mob mentality. Invariably, the “unhackable” cars are hacked, and the fate of the occupants is decided not just by the characters we interact directly with, but by a more intangible influence, that of social media. When lives are at stake, this quickly develops into a full-throated trial by social media with life and death at the hands of tweeters we never meet on an individual level but who only seem to exist as shifting masses, who prove feckless and fickle in the face of the evidence presented to them
This is all good stuff to chew on. But who do we meet as our cast of characters?
The main setting for The Passengers is the members of a supposedly-independent inquest into accidents regarding driverless vehicles, ostensibly to apportion blame. Our protagonist is Libby, a bog-standard everyman hero at first glance, introduced as the “token citizen” in the inquest. She’s forthright, fights for justice… all the characteristics you might expect. Indeed, her characterisation is a little thin, almost bordering on the trite; however the book acknowledges this toward the latter stages when we discover quite why Libby is even in the inquest.
We also have MP Jack Larsson, the antithesis to Libby’s good character – a shady, snide worst-of-the-worst politician, almost a caricature. And the mysterious Hacker, for most of the book an ominous (if slightly cliched) vocal presence throughout proceedings. We’re left to wonder what the Hacker’s motivations are – their initial opening is that they’ve taken control of the eight cars because they can, without making any demands. But this soon evolves into a sick game of life and death, with the participants of the inquest having to decide which occupants to sacrifice for the greater good, according to the rules of the game the Hacker decides to play.
On a conceptual and moral level The Passengers is a fascinating and gripping glance twenty minutes into our future – where autonomous cars are played in a sick game of trial-by-social-media, the purpose of which only becomes clear toward the very end of the novel. This collision of some thought-provoking, prescient social issues – driverless cars, social media power, even the art of spin and how facts are presented – in 2019 gels together well; considerably better than perhaps it might seem.
I’d be remiss to not acknowledge some of the weak points of the narrative and prose that are there – for me they weren’t inherent negatives to my enjoyment of the book. Firstly, the characterisation of the people through which the story primarily takes place through is fairly perfunctory – the characters exist for reasons that the plot needs them to, and we don’t learn a great deal about their personalities beyond tropes. This is fine – indeed, this shares a characteristic, that of the characters existing to help the plot, from one of my favourite technothrillers, Jurassic Park. The Passengers is refreshingly unliterary and plot-centric which results in a pacey, thrilling story that keeps delivering.
However I do feel that the narrative could’ve left the inquest room as a viewpoint more throughout the main thread of the hacked driverless cars – too often the societal impacts of the fast-paced change are merely reported as “thousands of Tweets” or a news report of “massed people”. It felt disconnected and a little subdued -I’d much rather be shown these events rather than be told about them by the social media advisor. But the main meat of the plot takes place over a couple of hours of narrative time so I understand if there’s simply not the space in the briskness of the plot to exit the room containing all the characters we experience the story through – who, conveniently, cannot leave – to adequately build alternate perspectives.
That said, despite a couple of glaring errors (why would Level 5 driverless cars have no manual override to stop the engine at all?) I thoroughly enjoyed The Passengers; to the point where the potential weaknesses were there but ultimately became unimportant in my enjoyment. There’s a great, brisk plot that delivers in spades – a sprinkling of social commentary packaged in an engaging, pacey wrapper – a great, engaging read that makes you think (not too much), and is written in an easy, breezy and slick prose that I really dug quite well. This was another random Waterstones table find that caught my eye – fair to say I’ll be seeking out more of John Marrs’ work on the back of it!