Aaru, by David Meredith
Aaru is a story about life, death, technology, fame - but mostly, it is a story about two sisters struggling with decisions made for them rather than by them.
The story opens with Rose, 16 years old, in hospital about to die. And then, at the last minute, a stranger comes to her and offers her the chance to have all her pain taken away... Rose dies, and then wakes up somewhere else. We quickly learn that she is not in Heaven - at least, not in the religious sense. Instead, she has been 'saved' to Aaru, a computer-generated utopia.
It is at the point that everything starts to go wrong...
Aaru deals in some BIG subjects. Life and death, fame and privacy, obsession and misogyny. The novel follows two young women, Rose and her younger sister Koren. When Rose dies, Koren is devastated. And then, when Rose is brought 'back' via the Aaru system, Koren is understandably delighted. However, when Elysian Industries, the company which designed Aaru, ask Koren to become their US-based spokesperson for the technology, her world changes and she finds herself the target of a deranged and violent man, the focus of a religious politician determined to end the project, and at the centre of a celebrity whirlwind.
Aaru is, at least for me, very much Koren's story, despite the fact that it is Rose who has actually undergone the process of being made functionally immortal. Indeed, I found myself skim reading the Rose chapters to get back to Koren, whose story is both desperately sad and all too easy to believe could happen, should such technology ever be invented.
Young, naive and grieving, Koren agrees to become the Aaru spokesperson without really understanding what such a role entails - she is simply too delighted to have her sister 'back', and, honestly, who among us wouldn't be? Having suffered bereavement myself, it's all too easy to empathise with the emotional maelstrom that Koren experiences at the beginning of the novel.
However, Meredith avoids melodrama by taking a gentle and measured approach to Aaru's subject matter. The story is far from rushed; events unwind slowly, creating in the reader a growing sense of anxiety for the well-being of the two protagonists. The idea of a digitalised life-after-death or an alternative world is one that has been explored before in SF, and Meredith's decision to follow not only Rose in Aaru but also Koren's experiences in the real world offer a new spin on the tale.
I'm actually rather hard pressed to say whether I enjoyed this novel. I suspect this is more to do with the complexity of the subject matter than any failing on the author's part. While it is a very slow burn at the beginning, Aaru benefits from the time taken to establish the world and the characters; because of this, when things start to unravel, I really felt the effects. As such, by the time I reached the end of the novel I was genuinely alarmed and anxious for the characters. Still, given the subject matter, the youth of the protagonists, and some of the events which occur in the novel (which could be triggering for some readers), it's a tough one to say I 'enjoyed' reading this.Was I engaged? Yes. Would I recommend it? Yes. Did I enjoy it? The jury's out.
In this sense, it puts me in mind of how I felt after reading Tess of the Derbervilles or American Psycho. Both of those books left me with a slightly unsettled feeling after reading them, though each for different reasons. In the same way, Aaru has left me thinking for a good few weeks after I finished reading it (in fact, this post has been delayed as a result). As I said above, this novel deals with a lot of weighty issues, the key one of which I suggest is the question of what 'utopia' actually is - and if it is indeed really ever achievable. If you're the kind of reader for whom Science Fiction is synonymous with exploring difficult possibilities, Aaru is a book you should definitely add to your 'to be read' pile.