*I received a free ARC of this book with thanks to the author. The decision to review and my opinions are my own.*
Blurb: Once your life is diluted to ones and zeroes on the End Man’s desk, it’s over. Or is it?
Afflicted with dromophobia, the fear of crossing streets, 26-year-old Raphael Lennon must live out his life within the four thoroughfares that border his Los Angeles neighborhood. Luckily, he found a fulfilling job within his space as an End Man at Norval Portals where Raphael is the best possum hunter in the company. He hunts the dead who live, people hiding under the guise of death. He doesn’t want to bring these “possums” to justice but to keep them out of his firm’s necrology database so their presence doesn’t crash the whole system.
When the company founder assigns Raphael a fresh case, he sets aside all other work to investigate Jason Klaes, a maverick physicist with boundary-pushing theories that may have attracted unwanted and sinister attention. Raphael soon discovers messages sent by Klaes after his supposed death—threats to people who have subsequently died. As he digs deeper, he receives his own message from Klaes, a baffling command to pursue the truth.
As he unravels the mystery, he unearths the secrets of his own phobia-plagued life and the inner workings of Norval, whose corporate ambitions include a nightmarish spin-off of its product. Raphael must stop them or he’ll never be free and neither will anyone else.
The premise here starts out simple and intriguing – main character Raphael’s job is to weed out those who have faked their deaths (‘possums’ who are playing dead) from his company’s ‘necrology’ database which collates all online activity of individuals who have died in order to preserve them in a memorial format on the system. Except that his latest possum isn’t following any of the usual patterns and not only can Raphael not work out whether he is alive or dead, he can’t work out how he is suddenly getting messages from beyond the grave about it. Or why everyone he speaks to seems to be turning up dead.
Fast-paced and almost manic, we follow Raphael as he ricochets around the small area that his phobia confines him to, as he tries to make sense of a deadly conspiracy involving AI and a digital afterlife, and a series of very suspicious deaths. From the beginning, it is clear that Raphael has problems with his mental health, as he struggles to decipher reality from his imaginings, attempts to record his entire life in painting format, and believes himself unable to leave his immediate area under pain of death by ice, fire, wind or gaping chasm in the earth. This uncertainty casts doubt on everything that Raphael is uncovering in his investigation, throwing the reader into the same turmoil the character is in, of being unsure what or who can be trusted.
Alongside the conspiracy-laden action sci-fi thriller runs a strong thread of philosophical exploration about what it is to be human, how we recognise reality and what is waiting for us after our physical bodies ‘end’ in death. It really made me think about the potential for online immortality in the future and how that could be open to exploitation and corruption. And I was shocked at how disturbing I found the idea of Natural Blanks – those who have no online data print at all due to being too old or too young. The idea of being preserved via social media was pretty creepy, but the idea of being gone with no trace left at all…. At least the Blanks get the choice! Honestly, none of the dystopian technology or social advances felt too far in our future; it all felt far too possible for comfort.
This is a well-written and gripping dystopian thriller, thoughtful and complex, that will appeal to sci-fi and mystery fans alike.
Death was a good place to hide.– Alex Austin, End Man
Ninety-nine percent of the reported dead stayed dead, but occasionally someone played possum. At the Norval Department of Marketing Necrology (NDMN), Raphael’s job was to find the possum’s pulse, no matter how faint.
About the author
Alex Austin is a Los Angeles-based journalist and teacher. His latest novel End Man has been acquired by Cursed Dragon Ship Publishing and was released in October, 2022.
His novel Nakamura Reality was published by The Permanent Press in February 2016. Publishers Weekly gave the novel a starred review and called it “powerful and moving.
Goodreads link: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/9066.Alex_Austin
Twitter link: https://twitter.com/alaust70