Book review: World Running Down by Al Hess

(courtesy Penguin Books Australia)

A review copy was provided by NetGalley; available 28 January 2023 in print and digital from Angry Robot Books

You could be forgiven for wondering whether a fractured, desert-plagued dystopia is the place to find and be true to yourself.

After all, it’s hardly a quiet couch in an air-conditioned therapist’s office where you can explore the depth and breadth of who you really are; and yet this is precisely the environment in which transgender salvager Valentine Weis, the goodhearted protagonist of World Running Down by Al Hess, finds himself in a future Utah wracked by societal collapse, save for scattered highly religious piratical settlements where want is great and supply is near nil and gleaming cities of excess and plenty, closed to anyone who isn’t a citizen.

It’s not a pretty place, and it’s certainly not easy, and the priority is simply staying alive, whether it’s finding enough food to eat and water to drink or avoiding the arrows of marauding salt flat pirates, and yet it is here, in the most hostile of worlds that Valentine embraces his true gender, casts aside his deadname, and dreams of a place in an urban idyll like Salt Lake City where he can get all the testosterone he needs and the surgery he craves to match the image he has of a future self, gleaned from a magazine scrap he keeps in his pocket, of a man in a suit leading a seemingly untroubled life.

It’s an intoxicating vision, but despite he and his fractious fellow salvager, Ace, who are not so much friends as allies of convenience, working as hard as they can, and taking all the gigs they’re offered, they simply can’t scrape up the money they need for a visa to Salt Lake City nor the time to study for the citizenship test.

“Don’t make fun of Dog Teats. Only bar that sells the mead I like.” It was also the biggest queer community this side of Las Vegas. He knew everyone there; a couch, food, and friends were always available. Unfortunately, the road there was near non-existent, and Ace argued they could pick up work in places more easily accessible.

Then, a drop dead gorgeous android named Osric turns up in the next town they arrive in, offering a glittering and long-sought prize from a escort agency owner in Salt Lake – recover a group of eight stolen female androids taken by a greedy ex-employee, return them to their place of employment and gain the chance to turn that magazine shred vision from pipe dream to lived reality.

Valentine and Ace take no time at all to say “yes” – not strictly speaking true since there are some misgivings but in the end, it’s all they ever wanted so how can they say “no”? – and off they go, Osric in tow, to find that what one person simply referred to as property are in fact self-aware androids who are not at all enthusiastic about heading home.

Cue a moral dilemma of fairly epic proportions, one which fills the grippingly affecting narrative of World Running Down with an emotional resonance so palpable you sense that you could reach out and touch it.

This is a novel that perfectly sets up what’s at stake, that establishes in some truly impactful empathic ways what it feels like to not be allowed to be your true self, to be denied the means to realise what you know to be true, and then to be asked to deny that to someone else for self gain.

(courtesy Penguin Books Australia)

It isn’t in Valentine’s nature to be selfish, and despite a burning need to deal with his gender dysphoria and stop the propensity of people to see him as someone he is definitely not, and to be with Osric who turns out to be the best thing to ever happen to him, we spend much of World Running Down with our earnest protagonist wrestling with what it will mean to deny his dream to give someone else theirs.

He is not alone in his quest for truth in identity and self.

Osric, poured against his will into an android body from the vast, all-consuming AI network he once called home, is grappling with whether he wants to return to that digital utopia or to stay in a meat body which, despite its annoying need for food, water and sleep, offers all kinds of benefits, not least the chance to kiss Valentine as much as humanly possible.

That is, of course, the million question at the heart of this beautifully-wrought, emotionally complex novel, the great struggle tat the heart of this luminously-moving, gritty, world-building queer masterpiece being a deep dive into who am I really and how do I bring that person into being?

While Valentine and Osric have to attack this great dilemma from different angles – Valentine knows who he is but doesn’t have the means to realise it while Osric is caught between two worlds though increasingly, against all his expectations, there’s one quite tangible one in which he’d like to remain – theirs is a universal quest to be true to themselves, no matter the cost.

Valentine’s dysphoria was rotten today, and he wouldn’t stand for Osric lying to him about his own. “You tell me the truth. How much are you suffering in that body? Because even if you feel good around me, if you’re feeling this shit about yourself, don’t delay going back.”

A light flush bloomed in Osric’s cheeks, and he looked away. “Much of my struggle in this body has been my sense of isolation. Putting my arm around you last night helped more than I expected. I doubt it would be a permanent solution, but if we can do that again, I think I will be just fine for the time being.”

No matter how you look at it, World Running Down is an utterly involving, vividly-realised exploration of what it means to truly know and bring your true self into being against a backdrop that seems wholly inimical to that task.

While the background of Valentine’s quest to live his true life as his true self is brutalist and apocalyptic, it’s not so different, existentially at least, from a host of queer people who daily face misunderstanding in their earnest need to simply live their truth, and who must make some tough decisions to make that happen.

Hess has captured the enormity and expansively intense emotional scope of how this feels and how it manifests in real and tangible ways and set against an enthrallingly epic broken world where anything is possible but coterminously so few things are.

Feel familiar?

That’s the deeply affecting beauty of World Running Down – it offers a sci-fi story so well-realised and so imaginatively told that you feel every last pothole on the salt flat roads and every last flash of disappointment and hope, all set in a world so completely different to our own in a potent physical sense but which feels very much like our reality where the rich control everything, the poor struggle at the margins and those who simply want to be themselves, like Valentine face an uphill struggle to be true to themselves and in so doing, make the lives of others better too, regardless of the cost.

You can’t read this superlatively good book, which bristles with all kinds of dark and terrible things but also the rich truth and moving humanity of being true to yourself, without fervently hoping that things will work out in the end, and that even if they don’t, at least central characters like Aimee and Osric will stay rewardingly true to who they are right until the end of this utterly beguiling and deeply affecting romp across a future dystopian America.

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