Golden State by Ben H. Winters
Unwarranted comparisons to 1984 should be punished with the severity of Orwellian dictatorships. Ben H. Winters really wants his novel Golden State to land among the authoritarian greats, but he spends too much time muddled in the world-building details of his dystopian society. This, plus a tedious mystery plot, makes it nearly impossible to wedge in any substantive commentary.
The titular Golden State is a tightly-bordered society that anchors itself on the principle that truth is the highest possible value; conversely, a lie is the greatest assault on communal stability. Lazlo Ratesic is a member of the “Speculative Service,” a branch of law enforcement higher than the “regular police,” who use a vaguely-defined supernatural ability to detect lies. Lazlo mentors a rookie speculator named Aysa Paige, and during their first day of partnership they investigate the death of a construction worker who fell from a roof. What initially appears to be a straightforward accident is gradually uncovered by Aysa’s persistent investigation to be an interconnected web of deception and conspiracy.
Right out the gate Ben H. Winters distracts the reader with cringe-worthy world-building gimmicks. In an attempt to create “a thing” intended to make the truth-obsessed society more immersive, the standard conversational greeting begins with each participant stating an incontrovertibly true fact. Take the following paraphrased example:
“2 and 4 are even numbers.”
“1 and 3 are not.”
“Always has it been.”
“Always it shall be.”
The numerous examples of this gimmick quickly grow tiresome and distracting. The all-consuming extent to which all civilians grovel at the ever-present specter of the truth is a corny far-cry from any Orwellian equivalent. Lazlo himself has chugged the entire pitcher of Kool Aid and constantly peddles propaganda touting that the permanent record of objective truth is the bulwark of society. Not only is this shoehorned into dialogue with other characters but also in reader-facing narration, and is far more nauseating than it is immersive.
When an author decides to set a story in a future dystopia, the million dollar question becomes: To what extent do you elaborate on the circumstances that precipitated this scenario? One viable option is to leave it out entirely and instead focus on the effects rather than the cause (as in The Road). Or, you might provide in depth elaboration that is inextricable from the themes of the story itself (as in Ender’s Game). Golden State instead hedges its bets and as a result, everyone loses. In regard to how this nation-state and its truth fetish came to be, as well as what sorts of civilizations may or may not exist beyond its borders, Winters waits until the eleventh hour and crams in hurried exposition that is half-baked at best. It’s enough information to build up your appetite of interest, but not nearly enough to actually satisfy it.
Golden State’s core story arc is a mystery, but the double-crosses, setups and conspiracies run so many layers deep that the initial 50% of the novel is mostly negligible in retrospect. Considering the story is about a society of such truth-obsessed zealots, it does a poor job of sustaining reader trust, and asks you to discard previous plot elements on too many occasions. Implanting false memories into the characters’ minds is an undisputed point of no return, and yes, Golden State goes there.
There’s also the speculators’ god-mode abilities that are kept in check by an excessive number of artificial plot constraints. Speculators do possess the ability to determine truth from fact by conducting a speculation pow-wow, during which they toss out hypotheses to see which ring true. There are also tiny cameras constantly surveilling every inch of the nation, a video record of which is kept permanently. But unrestrained use of these talents and technologies would mean speculators could get any answer instantly, and in turn we would have no story. Winters therefore floods the rules with bureaucratic roadblocks. Viewing the video surveillance records requires filling out multiple forms and a significant wait. Meanwhile, Lazlo continually vetoes Aysa’s requests to hold a speculation session on grounds that they are only reserved for particular circumstances, the specifics of which he does not have the courtesy of offering. There is little authorial purpose in granting characters such intriguing abilities if only to artificially restrict their use until very late in the plot.
By Golden State’s conclusion, Winters does not prove himself to be a writer’s writer. He describes a mostly bald man as having “tufts of hair ringing the smooth bulge of his scalp like high clouds around a mountaintop.” When Lazlo asks someone a baffling question, their dumbfounded response is described “[as if] I’ve asked you if you can alter a dog so it can fly, or a fish so that it can walk across the room.” Winters uses unnecessary words including contumacious, coruscated, and etherialities. As Lazlo further peels back the conspiratorial plot, he marvels that it all feels like something out of a novel. It’s fine enough that Winters wanted to update the trope of an information-dictatorship, increasingly relevant in the Twitter age during which people construct their own bubbles of subjective facts and truths. But Golden State’s stage is so crowded with world-building gimmicks and ceaseless plot twists, that any potentially memorable statement has no room to breathe.
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Really nice (& more importantly, fair) review. I was willing to overlook any number of faults the book/story/approach threw in my path, but the muddled ending finally caused my patience to run out. But as the book was already over, what’s the point of feeling annoyed?
To be honest, I like to see myself as a fairly well-read and savvy reader, but the book’s ending made no sense to me. What was the pay-off? None that I could see.so finished it rather frustrated. the premise and the (lack of) payoff seemed so disconnected to me that I felt the author had the start of one book, the end of another, and needing to meet a deadline jammed the two together.
Trying not to spoil it for someone who has yet to read the book, but questions abound! Charlie’s status, role, and ultimate destiny? Arlo’s status/role? Why did the judge do what he did? Why wasn’t the Expert & Doonan’s roles in all of this more fully elaborated? The Golden State in defiance of the Golden State? The exiled world? What a mess. Glad I’m not the only one to have issues with the book.
Again, thanks for a well-written, on-point review. You did a far better job capturing my frustrations that I could have.
Similar to the way you were able to forgive the faults initially while plowing through to the end, I suppose I was already jaded enough about halfway through so that once it got to the end with all those unexplained gaps in sensible character motivations, I had already let go of enough investment to even wonder about it. The true golden state in service of the fake golden state was the kicker, that I just had to tap out in regard to how much I cared. Like you said, mashing multiple ideas together in a blender is going to result in some unclear character arcs, and they are abound in this book! Thanks so much for commenting!