This review is based on an eARC (Advance Reading Copy) provided by the author in exchange for nothing (but it’s getting an honest review anyway). Three Grams of Elsewhere will be released on May 4, 2023.
Evidently, I’ve spent enough time recommending The Nothing Within that Andy Giesler thought I’d be interested in reading an advance copy of his next book: Three Grams of Elsewhere. He was right, I agreed, and it will doubtless come as no surprise when I say that I really liked it.
Apart from a folksy first-person narration and a future Midwest setting, Three Grams of Elsewhere isn’t much like The Nothing Within. It’s set in the fractured remnants of what was once the United States, where the neurological basis for empathy has been mapped and enlisted to aid in geopolitical power struggles. Access to an interlocutor’s emotions yields significant advantage in negotiation, and the strongest of empaths can control drones with their minds. But perhaps the strongest empath of all is living out his old age in a Wisconsin retirement community, as off the grid as he can manage, until his former colleagues begin to show up dead, with evidence suggesting that only someone like him could have been responsible.
The plot summary suggests something like a cyberpunk mystery novel, but let me start by saying that this reads nothing like a cyberpunk mystery novel. Instead, it features the meandering narration of an old man telling a story the way he wants it told—with all the digressions that entails—and a deep concern for theme over plot. Mind you, there is a plot, and it does matter. But it’s not necessarily what the blurb might suggest. The lead is mostly passive in the actual investigation, along for the ride as the new pieces of information join with his musings and memories to sketch a conflict much bigger than mere murder.
And as the story takes shape, the lead’s main goal is not rooting out a murderer, but rather making a case for the value of empathy. His land sits in an uneasy equilibrium in which four regions of the former United States have fragmented along political lines and fought bitterly to carve out territory they could control. And with high-profile murders in three of the four nations, the conditions are ripe for yet another war. But the lead wants none of it. He is dedicated to the proposition that hating the outgroup is bad, actually, and if he isn’t in a position to fight that hatred on a societal level, he can at least quash the hateful impulses that arise in his own heart.
It’s a theme that may seem tepid at first glance, but in the context of early 2020s America, it feels like a breath of fresh air. Online discourse seems regularly characterized by hatred, and it’s not all driven by mere emotional reactions; there are explicit arguments that empathy for the other is naive, and when made a norm, it serves only to allow bad faith groups to accomplish their nefarious goals. Giesler clearly doesn’t agree, and in me, he’s found an extremely sympathetic audience—so it’s no surprise that I liked the book as much as I did.
But I didn’t like the book purely on account of the theme. The narrative voice is exemplary, perfectly capturing the perspective of the sort of person who doesn’t often find himself the protagonist of a science fiction novel. For some, meandering narration may be a mark against it. But for readers who love getting into a lead character’s head—especially a geriatric lead that’s well outside the genre standard—the narrative voice is an undeniable selling point.
And for the story? Well, like I said, it meanders, with a slowly progressing plot and an ultimate conflict that doesn’t become clear until very, very late. But it gets by for a good while on theme, voice, and worldbuilding. And then when the plot finally comes to a head, it delivers an excellent climax that does justice to the theme while also providing a satisfying emotional payoff. This won’t be a book for everyone, but I liked it a whole lot, and I suspect I won’t be alone.
Recommended if you like: geriatric protagonists, first-person narration with a distinctive voice, the value of empathy.
Can I use it for Bingo? It’s hard mode for Self-Published, and it’s also Published in 2023 and Features Robots.
Overall rating: 17 of Tar Vol’s 20. Five stars on Goodreads.