Here’s another frightening alternate history thriller by Ben H. Winters. If you loved his 2016 Underground Airlines, like I did, you’ll want to give Golden State (2019) a try. It’s set in a near-future California (or some part of California) where lying has been criminalized due to the fall-out from the disastrous events that occurred when certain leaders of the United States kept deceiving the citizens. (I will say that one good thing about the current US administration is that it’s providing a wealth of fodder to speculative fiction authors!)
To uphold the truth, there is surveillance everywhere. Everything is on the record. Even logs of personal daily activities and all receipts must be entered into the public archive. Fiction is not allowed in any form because it deviates from the “Objectively So.” Instead, citizens are encouraged to read the dictionary so that everyone can agree on a standard word usage. They have ritualized and are constantly reinforcing their shared reality and showing their eagerness to embrace truth and shun deception by, among other daily rituals, regularly reciting math and science facts to each other. They’ve made truth their religion.
Lazlo Ratesic is one of the people who enforces the truth in the Golden State. He can actually sense lies and deceptions and can charge people who commit them. The death penalty has been outlawed, so lying usually results in prison time or exile from the Golden State.
When Lazlo and his new partner notice some anomalies at the scene of a seemingly innocuous accident where a roofer had fallen off a roof, they start following the inconsistencies and stumble upon a truth that’s completely different than the one they know.
I enjoy Ben H. Winter’s speculations. In Underground Airlines, he asked what the United States would be like if there had been a compromise instead of a Civil War. Now he’s asking what the United States would be like if it was illegal to lie. These are provocative ideas because, generally, wars and lying are bad things and compromise and truth are good things. But Winters takes his speculations all the way to their extremes and shows us that sometimes a war is better than a compromise and sometimes a lie is better than the truth. Certainly his premises are a bit extreme, but that’s what makes the stories so entertaining. Winters’ stories also move fast with lots of twists and turns — they’re hard to put down.
Despite his complete commitment to the Golden State and its laws, Laz is an endearing protagonist, as is his new partner, a gay black woman named Aysa. Laz is recently divorced and his loneliness and sense of rejection is palpable. I loved how he resented his new partner because he didn’t feel free to stop at the diner for a piece of blueberry pie when they were on a case. I also loved the scene where he begins reading an outlawed novel that he found in the accident victim’s home. For the first time, Laz feels the power of fiction, how it distorts reality in such an intoxicating way. Any reader will recognize the way Laz feels.
I can’t tell if there will be a sequel to Golden State, but there could be and I hope there will be. I listened to the audiobook version (10.5 hours) produced by Hachette Audio. It’s read by actor Kiff VandenHeuvel who was perfectly cast and sounds exactly as a zealous law enforcement officer like Lazlo Ratesic should. You can sample the audiobook here.