An unsettling novel which taps into a range of human emotions, The Complex is a surprisingly thrilling book. Analysing the darker side of technology is a popular novel theme, however The Complex doesn’t ever feel tired or repetitive; instead, it manages to hand over a great deal of trust to the reader, finishing with an ambiguous, faded ending that is cinematic in every sense. Walters has developed a unique and thoughtful idea, transforming it into an accomplished novel that will hook even sceptics of sci-fi fiction.
At first glance – the reading of the blurb and the initial few pages – I feared that Walters had produced another ‘technology-fearing’ novel which, while they can be enjoyable, often focus too much on the world building and brush forward through any meaningful, developed, plot points. Thankfully, I was proven wrong. While Walter’s idea isn’t exactly unique in that sense, he does approach the idea with a refreshing set of skills. He doesn’t compromise on the language, or spend pages and pages explaining this near-future environment. In The Complex, the blend of reality and virtual-reality function as a backdrop for something much more important – the trust between human beings, and the reliance we have on each other for basic, meaningful interaction. While nearly all the characters turn to things like medications and technology as a means of escapism, The Complex highlights the downfall of making these as a necessity – something which hits close to home for modern readers. Even Leo, arguably one of the most oblivious characters and a pretty ‘normal’ guy, is preoccupied with reconnecting to the ‘grid’ during the first couple of days of the trip, placing his life in danger by doing so. And actually, this is a simple obsession that many of us consider daily – for example, how often, when arriving in a new place, do we ask for the Wi-Fi password, or check that we have phone signal? We may initially scoff at Leo’s preoccupation with the ‘grid’, and indeed scream at the pages for him to realise what is happening around him, however his needs aren’t that far away from our own.
A lot of trust is placed on the reader in The Complex. Unlike some sci-fi attempts, Walters doesn’t waste any time going over the ins and outs of this near-future world; we know that there has been a War, we understand that big technology co-operations have been pushing for ‘robots’ to take-over society, and we know that the fascination with virtual reality, and tapping into this state of the subconscious being, is an ongoing fascination for our characters and possibly the rest of the society. There are cars which speak to our characters, the ‘grid’ that keeps everything functioning, and genetically enhanced fruit and fully robotic, lifelike limbs are part of the present. Yet all these nuggets are revealed to us slowly and methodically, slipping into the story where appropriate and aiding the advancement of the plot. Therefore, responsibility is given to reader to figure out and visualise the world themselves, and to also determine what is happening to the characters when they arrive at this eerie complex. While we do receive a considerable amount of backstory for almost of the characters – again, in an effortless and meaningful way – what is actually happening to them, in the present, is often open for interpretation. What is the complex? Very little is revealed about who owns it, why they have chosen to come here specifically, and just what the deal with the creepy gatehouse at the entrance is. As for the ending, that takes on a cinematic feel, what with the image of mother and son escaping back into ‘reality’ (or is it?), leaving the chaos behind. But what has actually happened, and what will happen to them and the remaining characters, whose fates still seemingly hang in the balance? If you prefer a novel with concrete answers, The Complex isn’t for you, but if – like me – you like to be left guessing and speculating, The Complex is a highly enjoyable and thrilling read, which leaves virtually every loose end untied.
It isn’t just the act of guesswork that Walters uses to draw in his readers, though. We are also captivated by the brutality and beauty of the language used in the novel, which is never overshadowed by the world-building or heavy plot arc. In fact, The Complex’s imagery takes centre stage, as we are captivated by the darkness of Walters’ words and the way they form these fantastic images. I particularly loved the way that the juxtaposition between the sleekness of the modern world, and the decay of humanity, was portrayed. We had ‘slop’ being served in a crisp, clean kitchen. Characters traipsing their dusty, bloody and dishevelled bodies over the floors of the picturesque house. Rooms were messy and dark after just a couple of days of their inhabitants being there – the dysfunction and chaos oozing from every corner of the ‘perfect house’. The way in which Walters describes the fruit/vegetable garden and nature is unsettling too. The characters are amazed and thrilled by the plumpness of all the food, yet my spine tingled when a tomato was described as bursting when being bitten into. It was almost too perfect, too pure, that it became unnatural and grotesque. The thought of the characters dining on it was sickening. The stag scene as well is possibly my favourite scene in the novel – the image of the blood, guts, fur and flesh, sliding down the huge windows stayed with me for the remainder of the novel. It unfolds with such a horrific elegance that really brings the moment – the shaking glass, the sinister indifference of Gaby, the disturbing excited reaction of Art – to life.
The Complex is one of those books which will no doubt leave you questioning what it was that you just read, but always in the fantastic sense. It takes a skilled writer to choose such a complex and developed theme for a book, yet not have it dominate over the superb writing and unique plot. The whole book is eerily dreamlike, or perhaps Walters is trying to convey that bizarre feeling you get when you remove yourself from virtual reality and step back into the real-world. It certainly felt like I was reading the whole thing through a screen of some sorts, yet the cinematic qualities only enhanced the books greatness.
The Complex is published by Salt and is available here.
Michael Walters was born in Port Talbot, South Wales, in 1973. He studied astrophysics at the University of Kent, then spent a year training to be a journalist before becoming a computer programmer. In his spare time, he studied creative writing, first at the Open University, then completing an MA in Creative Writing with Manchester Metropolitan University. He is currently a software developer and lives with his wife and two children in North Yorkshire.
Reviewed by Mariah Feria
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