Friday, March 4, 2022

"The Visionary" by J.C. Gemmell--Fiction Review

Today Obscurists, we’re talking about a fairly unsettling dystopian sci-fi by J.C. Gemmell called “The Visionary.” And it’s a no thanks from me on the vision of the future that visionary comes up with in this story. 

J.C. Gemmell

***The Non-Spoiler part of this review***

What I love about this book:

It’s a deeply unsettling and scary story when you get right down to it. I like things that can get under my skin because most stories don’t fill me with dread anymore; often, the best they can do is startle me. “The Visionary,” though, isn’t scary because of the all-too-real sounding natural disaster that takes place, or even the raw violence and disarray that inevitably happens when a dark age kicks off during an apocalypse. No, it’s the society that “builds back better,” if you will—that is cold and alien—that creeps me out.

There is a lot of intrigue in this story, more so than I expected when I started reading it. Most scenes have at least two layers to them, what is happening and being said on the surface and what people’s actual intentions are underneath all of that.

I listened to this novella in its audiobook format because, well, naturally, I did if you’re a repeat reader of this blog. In any case, Jennifer Aquino has a subtle trick to her narration that I absolutely adored, and that is staying true to the sound of her characters’ voices while simultaneously demonstrating how they’ve aged throughout the story. Part of it is the material Gemmell gave her to work with, but there is also that performer’s flourish of how, especially, Xin-yi sounds as a girl vs. as a woman. Many narrators go wrong here by exaggerating, but Aquino uses the same voice with only modest modifications to tone and pacing, which I feel is way more impactful.

What I don’t love about this book:

I don’t love Xin-yi, and I don’t mean this as a criticism or that she’s poorly written as a character. I think she’s written wonderfully—I just don’t like her much as a person. As a protagonist, she has an arc and grows as a person, and who she comes out as—when everything is said and done—is someone I don’t like all that much. I suspect, Xin-yi herself doesn’t like Xin-yi all that much toward the end, but I can’t get too much into it in the non-spoiler side of things.

Stylistically, I think this story is as ambitious as any other big sci-fi story, but I don’t have a real good grasp of the rules of this world—or even a well-defined concept of how the super science of this universe works. For instance, despite reading a whole novella about them, I still don’t precisely understand what is it that visionaries do exactly or how their powers work.

There are explanations for things and technology, but they are primarily just surface-level stuff that ranges from the mysticism of “Star Wars” to the technobabble of “Star Trek.” It’s a minor complaint because the story’s point isn’t necessarily to focus on the technology featured but how an engineered society rebuilds. 

This preview is an Amazon Affiliate link; 
as an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases

Author’s Website:

***The Spoiler part of this review***
***Ye be warned to turn back now***

The quick and dirty synopsis:

Mount Erebus erupts, which kicks off the worst climate disaster in human history. Combined with an already warming planet, this latest major eruption in just the wrong place causes the ice caps to completely melt and sea levels to rise dramatically.

For Xin-yi and her family in China and billions of others, it’s an absolute disaster. Xin-yi and her mother have to flee their home as both technology, and the Chinese government fail in the wake of the global catastrophe. In all the confusion, she is separated from her brother and can’t get in touch with her father, working in a different city.

Xin-yi and her mother settle in a small rural community, which Xin-yi doesn’t really take to, and so when she finally gets her chance to leave with some census officials, she jumps at the opportunity. From there, Xin-yi is employed by a shadowy megacorporation that arranges to train her and others like her for the most ambitious project ever undertaken. They will reimagine everything and create a new world for humanity as visionaries, a sort of sci-fi super project manager.

Anyway, becoming a visionary leaves a unique mark on each person, it’s like a living tattoo, and for some, like Xin-yi, it can even manifest in the real world outside of their body. It’s like a secondary little bit of that person, and its function seems to be to keep them honest.

As Xin-yi rises through the company’s ranks and the project to build a new world gains momentum, she finds herself attracted to a young man whose religious beliefs make him her polar opposite. They’re friends, in a way, even though their relationship seems pretty antagonistic and sometimes outright manipulative.

To throw an extra curveball, Xin-yi and her team are given another special project to use their powers to create a supercomputer that has the ability to re-create the dead—a technological resurrection. It goes a step further because eventually, it isn’t just bringing back the dead in digital form, but they can create a whole virtual heaven.

She tests this new technology by bringing back her brother, and it works. She re-creates a sixteen-year-old version of her brother. Shortly after, she finds out that her brother never actually died in the flooding, which creates a new ethical dilemma after meeting him again. But ever the cold pragmatist, Xin-yi just seems to shut down the version of her brother she created and offered her living brother the chance to go to her digital heaven, which he takes. Of course, he needs to die to go there.

In the end, Xin-yi and her sometimes friend, sometimes love interest, and sometimes ideological foe sit down for her birthday. He still struggles with the ideological problems he has with the company they both work for and how they contrast with his religious convictions. But despite his doubts, since he is dying of liver disease, he decides to transfer his consciousness into the artificial heaven Xin-yi helped to create in the virtual space. They finally admit their feelings for one another that they both suppressed at various times and kiss for the first and last time ever.

Then, as the machines drill into his skull with lasers and start the transfer process, Xin-yi edits his persona, his very being, to strip him of his religious beliefs in his new world—the ultimate betrayal.


I find a first-person perspective, like this novella is written in, is always an ambitious way to tell a story. It creates an intimacy with the character telling the story, and some of my absolute favorite sci-fi stories, like “Annihilation” and “The Hunger Games,” two very different stories, are written this way. When it works, it’s fantastic, and when it doesn’t, it’s beyond awkward. Luckily, “The Visionary” does it well as we ride along attached to Xin-yi the whole time, and yet Gemmell still manages to make her a touch “unknowable” and a wild card in her thoughts and feelings. 

For a book about an apocalyptic event, even the story’s violence is often impersonal and off-stage, which I think is an interesting tact to take. I’ve read many stories that are: woe is humanity, who but for a gossamer sheet of society has the heart of a barbarian beating in their chests, ready to eat their neighbor’s eyeballs at the first sign of food shortages. That isn’t what happens in “The Visionary,” however, society does what society always does in the real world after the start of a new dark age—clean up the dead, recohere in a new form, and rebuild. 

But what recoheres—like I hinted at above—isn’t exactly where I’d like to see progress to explore. I know I described them as alien above, but they aren’t alien, like space aliens. I don’t want to give the wrong impression. They’re just members of a futuristic culture that seems nightmarish. I get the impression that everyone in this world is a little like Xin-yi. And she creeps me out on how easily she can justify altering her friend’s mind or experimenting with her brother, the created one and the biological one. 

What disturbs me the most about this story is that Gemmell takes a value of mine, that we’re all the better as people when we cooperate and band together, and serves it back to me with a warped end product. That’s what sticks with me.

Parting thoughts:

I’ve mentioned before that I take an agnostic view of the world when it comes to spiritual matters, but still, the moment Xin-yi wiped out her friend’s religious convictions gnawed at me on a whole new level. I might disagree with the man, but to edit him, to change his very being because of that disagreement is beyond the pale for me.

But materially speaking, what she does, if you believe that everyone is ultimately the product of the matter and energy that comprises them, there is no physical law of the universe that says she couldn’t exercise that power. The problem of doing it, ethics aside, would be technical, not fundamental, and if she had the technology to do it, it could be done.

It’s uncomfortable for me because this is actually the position I lean toward. After all, I don’t seriously credit the idea of some magical force that animates us beyond what can be described by physics and quantum mechanics—in other words—I’m not convinced of the existence of souls separate from our physical reality. 

This also extends to her virtual reality afterlife as well—if a sufficiently powerful supercomputer to run the simulation could be built, there is no reason why it couldn’t exist. Even the concept of uploading people to that simulation isn’t something that couldn’t be done once we understood how the brain generates consciousness. It’s only a matter of having the technical sophistication to pull it off.

The concept Gemmell touched on with re-creating the dead is also something I’d heard first from the futurist Ray Kurzweil. In Kurzweil’s case, he described re-creating his father through the use of records and his own memories, which I suspect the fidelity of that problem would be too great to re-create a synthetic version of that person that would seem true-to-life to anyone other than Ray Kurzweil.

But then again, would that matter to Kurzweil? Wouldn’t he have what he set out to re-gain from his perspective? The ethical problems of the idea are too much to get into right now. But imagine if such a resurrection technique became widely available, and with all the digital footprints people now leave in the modern world.

No comments:

Post a Comment