A dystopian sci-fi novel about a rebel group of tough mothers, pitted against a city of genetically-enhanced elites? Yes, indeed! Add in an intriguingly unique child caught between these opposing worlds, and some secretive and questionable leaders, and you’ve got the central cast of Richard Gohl’s gripping first novel, Digital Venous. Set in a dark futuristic vision of the writer’s home town of Adelaide, Digital Venous will make you re-think the fate of our quiet little city, should a climate catastrophe ever befall us. Spoiler alert: it ain’t pretty!
A series of fierce solar flares have destroyed the Earth’s atmosphere and split the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ into a tensely polarised living arrangement. There is a technologically sophisticated and pleasure-focused way of life for those who could afford the treatment to achieve it (called Nanopeans), which leaves the rest of the people burdened with a subterranean and subsistence-based lifestyle (called Subs), viewed as inferior and sub-human by the Nanopeans. The main interaction between the two ways of life is in the Subs performing manual labour for Nanopeans, and the secret theft of children from the Sub domain to take up into the sterile world of genetic enhancement above.
There are plenty of compelling characters in this story, however personal favourites for me are the rebel group from the subterranean world – mainly women who’ve lost children to the Nanopean child-stealing racket. They are tough, clever and funny and have a believable chemistry as a group. They seek revenge against the system and return of their stolen children. When they discover a dark secret that the Nanopean leaders have in store, it’s up to them to exploit it in order to triumph. The character of a little boy named Ryan who literally embodies both worlds is the catalyst for this, and he’s a welcome mini-hero in a book where the adult male lead is pleasingly outshone by our feisty gang of women.
The science behind the world that Gohl has envisioned both enables and serves the story, rather than the other way around, making the story feel natural to that realm. The whacky subcultural responses of Nanopean people to their genetically-altered appearances are particularly fun to read and add a depth of detail to the futuristic civilisation that the reader is dwelling in.
One of Gohl’s strengths is in great plotting that draws you in and keeps you turning the (digital) page. The story would make a cracking tv series (paging Joss Whedon!), as the episodic plot rhythm is ready-made for that medium. And of course, a visual rendering of the striking world Gohl has created would make for great viewing.
The future may be bleak, but the strength and realism of the women depicted in Digital Venous is an entertaining and refreshing backbone to this story. The novel circles around many thought-provoking themes such as alternative family structures, elitist entitlement and social discrimination, yet always keeps the story as the main priority and ticking along nicely.
My advice: get your digital copy and enjoy the ride!