My judging team for the third annual Self-Published Science Fiction Competition (SPSFC3) has scouted our entire allotment and selected seven books to be passed around the team for full evaluations by our entire complement of judges. As I read two of the seven in the scouting phase, that will mean five new reads for me personally, all books that either got thumbs up from multiple scouts or had one of my teammates really go out on a limb in favor of it. Of those five, two had both a thumbs up from multiple judges and one judge going out on a limb in its support. One of those two was my last read of the round: Thrill Switch by Tim Hawken.
Thrill Switch is a cyberpunk thriller with a content warning list as long as your arm. Virtual reality has advanced to the point where many people spend most of their lives plugged in to a world with no laws and where all physical scars can be erased—even if the psychological ones can’t. But when a religious activist shows up dead in the real world, in a manner that reflects the modus operandi of the virtual world’s most infamous serial killer, real-life law enforcement must dive in to the virtual world to find the killer before the murders continue. And their search brings them into the middle of a vitriolic battle between anarcho-libertarians and those seeking to bring law and order to virtual reality.
Thrill Switch is not a book to pull punches, and an intense opening scene generates a hold on the reader that is not easily relinquished, even for a reader like me who is fairly lukewarm on both cyberpunk and detective stories. There’s enough danger—both real-world and virtual—to keep the tension high as the novel progresses, and a desperate consultation with an imprisoned serial killer ushers in a wave of uncertainty in a way that harkens back to non-genre classics like The Silence of the Lambs.
While the tension stays high throughout the novel, the form brings with it some ebbs and flows. The reader of a detective novel can be pretty confident that a plan to capture the killer at the 40% or 50% mark won’t be successful, and Thrill Switch is no exception, with a bit less energy in the middle than in the beginning and end. It does, however, make use of these sections to dive into the political battle that serves as a backdrop of the mystery, implicitly offering up pretty harsh criticism of both the surveillance state and anarcho-libertarianism. It’s not a novel that’s really seeking to make a positive case for a certain political point, but it certainly captures both the dangers of abuses of state power as well as the horrors of unchecked license.
There are a couple small wobbles that detract somewhat from the overall story, though they’re lately outweighed by the vivid setting and pulse-pounding plot. The setting leans a bit too heavily on contemporary pop culture, leading to jarring anachronisms like the Twitter bird as an iconic symbol of one of the biggest brands of mid-21st century. And some of the side characters hew so closely to genre archetypes that the experienced reader will be able to predict a few betrayals before they happen. Fortunately, betrayals are sufficiently well-supplied that this doesn’t make the novel writ large feel predictable, but some characters certainly have more depth than others.
None of these are deal-breakers so much as just reasons this is a four-star review instead of a five-star one. Ultimately, Thrill Switch took a subgenre I found uninspiring and pulled me in anyways, with a gut-punch of an opener and cracker of an ending. It’s a true thrill ride, with a well-wrought social backdrop that gives the whole thing a ring of truth. This is not a book for readers who are even a little bit squeamish, but for those with stronger stomachs and a taste for cyberpunk mysteries, it’s an excellent read.
Recommended if you like: edgy cyberpunk thrillers.
Can I use it for Bingo? It’s Self-Published and includes Mundane Jobs.
Overall rating: 15 of Tar Vol’s 20. Four stars on Goodreads.
SPSFC score: 7.5/10 for my personal score. The official team score will be determined in concert with my teammates.