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The Switch by Justina Robson

In Harmony, only model citizens are welcome.

A perfect society must be maintained. The defective must be eradicated. For orphans like Nico and Twostar, this means a life that’s brutal, regulated and short.

But Nico and Twostar are survivors, and when they’re offered a way out of the slums, they take it.

Unfortunately, no one told Nico the deal included being sentenced to death for the murder of one of Harmony’s most notorious gang leaders.

Or that to gain his freedom, first he must lose his mind.
Justina Robson is well known for two different strands of writing: a paranormal science fiction romantic action series, the Quantum Gravity books, and also hard far-future science fiction like Natural History and her BSFA shortlisted Glorious Angels. The Switch is her latest novel, and comes with a cover which suggests continuity with the former, but content much more in line with the latter…

The Switch is a slightly odd book, formally. It starts in media res, before jumping back for a number of chapters to give the backstory to how we got to the point we started at, and then continuing from that starting point. Robson’s first-person narration notes things in the retrospective section that would, had the character marked them at the time, been foreshadowing, emphasising how much it’s a looking back on his life, but when we catch back up to the narrative, those things still sometimes appear: The Switch is told in a very immediate style but in the past tense, which gives it a slightly odd feel. That’s not helped by Robson’s first person narration slipping into omniscient third at times, knowing not just how other characters appear to feel but how they actually do, a strange slip of the narrative wrist.

The plot itself is, on the surface, very simple: orphans cast out for their flaws (homosexuality) by a twisted and repressive religious society seek escape from the society, through criminal cartels and then off-world. The Switch takes that very basic idea and makes of it a twisty, turny plot with all kinds of things going on inside of it, all kinds of slips sidewise, adding in extra complications, additional motivations, and deceit; Robson ends up with a kind of heist plot that is part revolution and part selfishness. The big problem is how messy it all gets; The Switch relies on layers and layers of deceit to pull off an overcomplicated scheme, and Robson never really makes clear why characters trust each other despite betrayals, or why the complexity of the scheme is the easiest approach they could take, instead of anything more straightforward.

Despite all that, there are compelling characters in here. Nico, the protagonist and viewpoint character of The Switch, is a gay man in a society with an extremely homophobic underpinning; he’s simultaneously rejecting of, and yet unable to entirely escape, that socio-religious programming, and Robson really conveys that internal tension well. Similarly, his armour against the abuse society heaps on him is shown as both a survival measure and something that does do harm; Robson is really good at writing his emotional intimacy with his chosen partner, later in the book. Twostar is less well-written, seen only through Nico’s eyes, but she’s still a compelling character in her own right, with some fascinating contradictions about what she wants and needs. The problem of character arises in much of the rest of the cast; every antagonist is incredibly simplistically portrayed and two-dimensional, whereas the meddling agent Tishan who creates much of the complexity of the plot seems to switch almost at random between genius mastermind and someone who can’t even see the obvious implications of their decisions.

In the end, The Switch is a fun book, with some great characters, but it could really have used some pruning of the complexity of the plot, or at least explanation of it; this is not Robson’s best work.

If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write these reviews by contributing to my Patreon.


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