Have You Decided on Your Question by Lyndsey Croal: A Review
The future just got creepier
Note: I received this ARC from Shortwave Publishing in exchange for an honest review. This review is also posted on Goodreads. If you like the book, consider doing so too as this really helps authors.
Have You Decided on Your Question, a near-future sci-fi thriller from Shortwave Publishing in the vein of Sliding Doors meets Black Mirror, is a novelette that packs a big punch, introducing a fascinatingly creepy and compelling future-tech concept and then leaving the reader to stew in the dangerous consequences of it, like a frog sitting in a slowly heating pan of water. I read it one sitting, which doesn’t sound as impressive when it’s a novelette, so let me add that I read it feverishly and compulsively, aware that I was headed towards bad things but unable to stop my addictive kindle page flicking.
Plot wise, it concerns Zoe, a sort of template Millennial dissatisfied with her love life and life in general, who is advised by her flatmate to try out an experimental virtual therapy experience from Alternative Reality Tech, who offer you the chance to explore the biggest “What If” questions from your life. First they gather data from your life using the chip on your wrist which records everything (we’re almost there with smart watches so this seemed eminently plausible) and then they use this to create a virtual reality that shows you what would have happened had you made a different choice. The idea is that this will help you be more confident in life, but you don’t have to have a degree in near future sci-fi stories to know that this noble aim does not match the reality. Zoe chooses to ask what would have happened had she turned up at a promising first date years ago and things… develop from there.
There’s a bunch of themes in here. The addictive nature of technology. The poignancy of regret and a potential life lost, and the lure of being able to have another chance at it. The potent lure of the virtual over the real – as a hardcore gamer, I found myself more empathetic to her travails than I’d care to admit. All these themes get their chance to shine even in such a short setting; Croal doesn’t bash you over the head with them but allows you to pick out each one to consider should you wish to do so.
It’s the aforementioned feeling of tension that really makes this novelette stand out though. We’re under no allusion from the start that this is going to end well – we’re no longer in the 1960s hay glow of thinking that this tech is going to be good for us – but the normalcy of the world around us – basically ours in twenty years – is deceptive, not pummelling us with horrors but making us settle into the unease. We’re not sure how this is going to go wrong, but we know that it is, and each misstep she makes into the tech heightens out discomfort, making this a gloriously uncomfortable read in the great tradition, of well, watching a Black Mirror episode.
But the reason this works so well is Croal’s relatable characters and realistic prose of the everyday and the mundane. The dialogue between her and her flatmate feels real; and this is a very witty story in parts. So relatable is her characterisation of Amy that the contrast been her ordinary life and the shock of how quickly this unravels leaves the reader floundering, caught between the prosaic and the horrific. This could be any one of us; if you don’t empathise with her at any point then reader, I don’t believe you.
Overall then, this is a bite-sized triumph. Shortwave seems like they want to corner the market on these SFF/horror/thriller novelettes, and this is a touchstone for the quality of what they are aiming for. It’s also a sign of a great writer in our midst; Croal has been producing excellent short stories for a while now, and this graduation to novelette length makes me excited (and worried for my nerves) at what she can do with a whole novel.