A Review of Proxy

Alexander Glass on Gary Gibson’s new novel

Cover art by Ben Baldwin

In Gary Gibson’s previous novel, Echogenesis, the main characters woke up on an alien planet in bodies not their own. In Proxy (Brain in a Jar Books, 2022), we remain on Earth, but a recently developed implant allows two people to swap bodies for a limited period. This is the near future, and like many near futures it is easily recognisable: devices have advanced, but their use is deftly illustrated; people are much the same, for good and ill; a series of pandemics have given rise to restrictions on travel, and other consequences. (With eerie prescience, Gibson wrote the book in the months leading up to the discovery of COVID-19.)

As in Echogenesis, Gibson takes one central, superficially simple, idea and runs with it, almost literally: the pace is breathless, verging on ruthless.

There is a lot of ground to cover, not so much in how Proxy might work (Gibson winks at quantum entanglement, but cannily avoids getting entangled in speculation about the details) as in its potential effects on individuals and on society. Proxy is not entirely illegal, but has very restricted legal uses: for example, as an alternative to international travel, post-pandemic(s). Other uses, introduced early on, are either entirely beyond the bounds of the law (one viewpoint character, Stacy Cotter, is ‘bodyjacked’, forced to proxy against her will; she wakes up in a stranger’s body, with no idea what her own body is being made to do) or take place in a dubious legal twilight (Ray Thomas is using Proxy to swap with the body of a criminal, as part of a police undercover operation). This is not to give too much away: these examples occur in the first two chapters, and almost every one of the next thirty-one chapters contains a further exploration of what Proxy might lead to.

Of several viewpoint characters, Ray is ultimately the most prominent: a former police officer, he was framed and unjustly disgraced, and is now a down-at-heel private investigator with a grudge. To a degree he is a type, from the hardboiled template, simply but effectively drawn. The other characters are also briefly sketched, with just enough shading to give them substance but not painted in great detail. This is not necessarily a problem: the characters are individual, and well distinguished from each other – not easy with a relatively large cast. They are well realised enough that each of them could have been the main protagonist (though a couple of them are later set aside, if not arbitrarily then rather brutally, as the story shoulders past them).

In the same way the setting – England, and mainly London – a few years hence, is instantly familiar. Gibson throws in, nonchalantly, a few tantalising glimpses into the past of this future (the ‘six-second war’; Proxy having been banned ‘after Korea and Washington’); but for the most the grimy world, a sort of kitchen-sink cyberpunk, is easily imagined, which means world-building can largely be folded into plot and dialogue, exposition can be quick and dirty, and we can get on with following the story.

And we are given a lot of story, encompassing what Proxy really is and who created it, the limits of its uses (it can do much more than most of the characters initially realise), where it will lead, and what it implies about humanity and consciousness. Ultimately the book is gnawing on one of sf’s central questions: what defines a human? It is the question at the heart of some of the genre’s core texts, and many others have nibbled on it; but Gibson proves that there is still flesh to be found on that old bone. He touches on what body-swapping might mean for ideas of race; he considers concealment of identity, kinks, kinds of minds, the line dividing human minds from those of animals, the line dividing human minds from AI, individual versus collective minds, and more besides. Clearly he has no fear, none, of running out of ideas. There is no need to ration them. He is confident that the wellspring of ideas will keep on flowing.

As a result, there is arguably enough substantial material here for a longer novel, or even two or three, or more. Certainly each of the ideas touched upon could be fleshed out further. But Gibson has elsewhere expressed impatience with sf novels that seem padded for length – why draw out a story longer than is needed? – and certainly he has resisted any temptation to do that here.

The counter-argument might be that, in making sure the pace never flags, a writer risks sacrificing depth in both story and character. The dull but obvious truth is that there is room in sf for both the fast-moving thriller and the exploratory, discursive dive into the profound, gloomy trenches of an idea. And – at the risk of stating the obvious – the two need not be mutually exclusive. Although Proxy never strays too far from the surface of things, it holds a torch trained on the depths, and keeps us appraised of what it can see as it passes.

Writers agonise about pace – when to let events unfold? When to pause and reflect? How much to say about the characters’ lives and hopes and tastes and opinions, beyond what the plot requires? – but Gibson has chosen a place to stand, and is comfortable there.

In Proxy, the approach works mainly because Gibson’s prose can bear it: it is breezy, punchy, with a thread of caustic wit. (‘“David,” he said, choosing his words with unnatural calmness, “What are you doing?” “Evolving,” David replied.’) There are some playful waves to other works – this example tips its hat to Arthur C. Clarke, of course – but the tone overall has echoes of Iain M. Banks.

This is Gibson’s sixteenth published book (by my count), and, like his prose in Proxy, he shows no sign of stopping, or even slowing down.

Alexander Glass is the pseudonym of an ex-lawyer (now law lecturer) and blues guitarist who is currently living somewhere on the outer fringes of London. He is not a brain in a jar, yet, but there’s still time. His stories have been published in Interzone, The Third Alternative, Black Static, Asimov’s Science Fiction and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. You can read Alexander Glass’s story ‘The Ghost in the Valley’ here on IZ Digital.

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