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To tell the truth – ‘Golden State’

January 30, 2019
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What would it be like to live in a world where there was no greater crime than telling a lie? And what if you were one of the few people with the ability to detect said lies – as well as the official state-sponsored authorization to venture outside the truth?

“Golden State” (Mulholland Books, $28), the latest novel by Ben H. Winters, takes a look at just such a world, a skewed near-future state in which pure, unadulterated truth is mandated by law. Interactions are defined through basic, unassailable facts – with no room for anything more.

While we might believe that absolute truth would be the way to go, the reality is that massive gray area between truths and lies is where the lion’s share of human relationships live. When truth is all that is allowed, it’s not long before free will begins to fade.

The Golden State – located in the area we call California – is a nation that rose up in the aftermath of a years-ago cataclysmic event that shattered society. In an effort to combat the perceived causes of this event – namely, a world driven by lies and half-truths – the Golden State exists on a foundation of absolute truth. Lying is the worst crime possible, punishable by exile into the wastelands beyond the mountains.

In an effort to maintain a shared, permanent and unassailable Record, surveillance is omnipresent, with cameras and recording crews constantly in action. Individuals are expected to keep a thorough record of their own interactions with others, logged and stored daily. Only this way can everyone be assured of sharing the same reality.

Laszlo Ratesic is one of the people tasked with enforcing the Golden State’s unwavering commitment to truth. He is an officer of the Speculative Service, a law enforcement offshoot populated by men and women who are gifted with the ability to sense lies. In addition to their ability to perceive untruths, they are the only ones authorized to speculate – to entertain ideas that are not completely anchored by hard-and-fast facts.

Laz is a legacy – his father and his brother Charlie were legendary Speculators. He’s not at their level, but he’s good at his job. So good that he’s given a trainee – a young woman named Aysa Paige. Laz is supposed to show her the ropes, but when their first case – a seemingly open-and-shut accident – turns out to have deeper ramifications, he quickly discovers that her gifts far outstrip his own. She’s the most naturally gifted Speculator since Charlie … and maybe even better.

As the two of them begin pulling at the assorted anomalous threads, the holes start getting larger. Every new lead takes them in a different direction, and despite Laz’s better judgment, he follows every one of them. It’s his job, after all. But here’s the thing about defining yourselves by the record – what happens when circumstances call the integrity of that record into question? Where’s your truth then?

With “Golden State” – much like he did with his previous novel, 2016’s “Underground Airlines” – Ben Winters has created a fascinating and oddly familiar world. There’s a queasy plausibility to his work – it’s easy to draw a straight line from our own world to the ones that he constructs. By following certain of our societal tendencies to their logical endpoints, he shows us just how far we might stray from our perceived direction – all without ever noticing that our course has changed.

Obviously, the truth is important. And again – the idea of a world where no one lies sounds appealing on its surface, but where’s the line? A world of mandatory truthfulness is a world without fiction. All stories must be true stories. All films are documentaries, all books are nonfiction and all visual art is representational. This is a place in which the only people possessed of poetic license are the men and women charged with keeping the world devoid of poetry.

Winters brings that particular reality home beautifully, with a periodic interjection from the manuscript of a “novel” being written by one of the secondary characters. Said novel is constructed of flat statements of fact and exact transcriptions from the record – there is nothing there that did not happen. It’s a less-is-more device; its handful of brief appearances serves the purpose perfectly.

“Golden State” is science fiction at its finest, a propulsive narrative filled with complex ideas that are expressed by engaging characters who occupy a rich and detailed world. It’s an immersive and thought-provoking work, one that challenges as much as it compels. The truth hurts.

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