Ariel S. Winter creates a compelling dystopian world, one that envisions the bleak state of humanity, where humans have almost gone extinct, with A.I dominating the landscape. This is where the title comes in, since remaining humans flock to what they call preserves, as they try to lead a semblance of a normal life, very much aware that the status quo isn’t in their favour. As I flipped page after page, I was plagued by one question: how did it get this way?
What I like about Winter’s book is that he doesn’t hit us with blinding hot exposition from the get-go, which is what a lot of authors feel compelled to do in sci-fi – set up the world before filling it with the characters. Winter throws us right into the midst of things, with our protagonist Chief Laughton investigating a murder, and as we follow him around and observe his interactions, we start to get a feel of this world, which is a world recovering from a series of plagues. I am about thirty percent into the book when I discover that it’s risky for humans to live like this, congregating on a preserve, living in such dangerous proximity to one another.
This hits a little too close to home, as we consider the social distancing that has become a part of our lives, and the similar anxiety we get about social contact. In The Preserve, donning surgical masks are mandatory when you step into a hospital; look at us, masks are now mandatory everywhere we go, our human faces so covered up that we find ourselves becoming distant to all that we know, so detached that we barely recognise others and ourselves anymore. This is supposed to be a dystopian, a speculative kind of fiction, but it is a what-if exercise that is strangely enough the reality we currently live in. It is certainly some twisted kind of fate that Winter has released a book like this in a year like 2020.
With humanity having to deal with the shattering consequence of these plagues, this is how A.I came to dominate the landscape, since they are immune to sickness. But because robots are built to simulate the human experience, they are unable to escape the vices that come along with this affliction, as Laughton discovers that murder victim is basically an A.I drug dealer. His job gets even harder – it is bad enough that there is a murder, especially one done on a preserve, but the complications are increasingly compounded as we realise that the victim might be connected to a series of A.I deaths as well.
This revelation brings Laughton’s former partner Kir (who is A.I) back onto the preserve, and the two work the case together, adding a buddy cop dynamic to the mix. The two play off each other in a familiar way, but there are also the familiar gripes – for all the banter, Kir is still A.I, even if he does pass for human in many ways. While Laughton may like Kir, and even grudgingly enjoy his presence sometimes, there is some sense of unease in his interactions with the A.I, as there always is when one group has power and advantage over the other.
Despite the futuristic aspect of Winter’s novel, the way the investigation is carried out gives off a very old school detective kind of vibe, where Laughton and Kir track down leads, interview witnesses, as we try to figure out who the culprit or culprits could be. I like that Winter doesn’t have the A.I make fast work of the case, which is sometimes a preoccupation in fiction where the technology has superseded our times – as Back to the Future has proven, not everything can be possible even if the technology is more advanced.
The Preserve doesn’t feel like a standalone novel, and I am not sure if Winter is setting up the novel to be the first in a possible series, where we follow Laughton on his various investigations. I do hope that the fiction Winter envisioned never becomes a reality, though I do take away from the novel the idea that despite the tragedies faced, we don’t completely succumb to it, working towards rebuilding what we used to have despite the challenges. Similarly, as we walk away from 2020, his novel is a reminder that we can hope to recover what we have lost – I ardently hope we succeed.
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