Book Review: "The Forever Watch", by David Ramirez
On a massive generation ship currently located roughly half-way between a dying Earth and a newly discovered habitable planet, life continues pretty much as normal for the last surviving members of the human race. Living out their day-to-day lives in carefully constructed replica cities, within carefully maintained artificial habitats, people on the Noah work and play, they shop, and they socialise. Basically, they pass the time however they can, knowing that they need to survive so that future generations can build a new home on a new planet.
For Hana Dempsey, though, this life seems to have lost much of its former appeal. Coming out of the other end of her designated Breeding Duty—a process which, for women, involved nine months in a medically-induced coma—Hana finds that her return to regular life isn't quite as simple, and straight-forward, as she was lead to believe it would be. In spite of everything that she had been told about the experience of going through Breeding Duty, Hana still finds herself missing the child that she was not permitted to ever meet. Unfortunately, due to the expectations placed on her, she also feels compelled to keep these feelings to herself.
Her work as a City Planner, responsible for overseeing the construction and maintenance of the Noah's artificial habitats, does offer some distraction, though. And, she also has access to a wide selection of memories and experiences available for purchase on the Nth web—the Noah's version of the Internet, accessible through neural implants. But, despite her best efforts, neither is entirely satisfying.
A better distraction finally comes in the form of an old friend—Leon Barrens, a cop who had once helped her. Barrens comes to her with the tale of a serial killer, colourfully referred to as "Mincemeat" due to what is left of the victims, who he believes is currently active on the ship. Barrens' old friend, Callahan, had been investigating this mysterious figure, until he became the latest victim. The official story is that Callahan has simply been Retired—moved to another section of the ship to live out the rest of his life in peace. But, unknown to the ship's authorities, Barrens had actually been the first to discover Callahan's body—seeing for himself what had happened to his old friend.
So, not only does it seem as though there is a dangerous serial killer active aboard the Noah, but Barrens also clear evidence to suggest that the killer's activities are being deliberately hidden from the general population. It is for this reason that Barrens has come to Hana—hoping to make use skills and contacts, as he attempts to uncover the truth. Feeling that she owes Barrens a favour—and, also clearly being very attracted to him—Hana agrees to help.
Of course, it immediately becomes apparent that Barrens was right to be suspicious. As they begin their investigation, they find evidence suggesting that these "Mincemeat" kills have been a regular occurrence, stretching far back into the Noah's past. Similarly, they also find more evidence to deliberate attempts to keep all of this hidden—with official records being altered to label all victims as Retirements. In some of the more extreme cases, they even uncover evidence to suggest that the memories of some witnesses have actually been altered, through their neural implants, in order to better fit with this carefully constructed illusion.
Fortunately, Hana and Barrens do also discover that they are not the only ones to notice this unsettling phenomenon—as they make contact with an increasing number of fringe-dwelling conspiracy theorists who are all convinced that there is some deep, dark, secret behind the violent killings, which the ship's authorities are desperate to keep hidden. What had seemed to be a simple murder investigation, at first, has now placed Hana and Barrens at the centre of a vast conspiracy—one which may even pose a threat to the Noah, itself.
There is a definite sense of the reader being thrown in the deep end with The Forever Watch. This is a strange fictional world that David Ramirez has built for us—and, the sheer variety of concepts and ideas that are thrown at us could, potentially, be overwhelming. This is mostly down to the tale's central protagonist, Hana Dempsey, who acts as our point of view. Not only is she not the convenient 'outsider' figure that we might have needed to ease our way into this fictional world, but she is actually something of an expert on the inner workings of the Noah. Much of the denseness of the novel is a direct result of this seemingly inconsequential decision. Our point-of-view character already understands the world around her, as do her friends and colleagues—that means that there are limited opportunities for any conveniently placed 'info-dump' style exposition to bring the reader up to speed.
This is something that I actually came to consider to be one of the novel's strengths, though. The author shows enough faith in his readers to expect us to be able to keep up without any hand-holding. A veteran reader of science-fiction should not have any trouble putting the pieces together, after all. Though, it does create the sense that this might make a poor introduction for someone new to the genre.
There are moments where things do tend to drag a bit, though, especially early on. It is, however, all a part of laying the ground-work for what comes later. If you find yourself bored by the novel's opening chapters, then the only advice I can really give is to try to push through. Things do get significantly more interesting once the central mystery begins to unfold. For my own part, though, I actually did enjoy these early moments of world-building as much as I did the later focus on the central mystery. The Noah is such a fascinating setting that I found myself genuinely interested in reading more about how everything worked.
One issue that I did have with the novel, though, concerns the story's focus on its central protagonist. The Forever Watch is written in a first-person perspective, with us essentially experiencing everything that happens through Hana's eyes. While, on the one hand, I do enjoy the opportunity to fully explore the thoughts and feelings of a central character, there were still moments where I wished that the author had been willing had been willing to pull back from Hana's perspective, at certain points. The reason for this is quite simple—Hana and Barrens seem to share roughly equal roles in pushing the story forward, but they are not always doing so together. There were moments in the story where nothing particularly exciting for Hana, but where it became clear, essentially after the fact, that Barrens had managed to get himself involved in some tense and exciting situations.
Just to be clear, Hana is a great character. She is well-developed and well-written. She is also written as being both smart and incredibly resourceful. I genuinely liked her. I just would have appreciated the opportunity to also experience some of Barrens's exploits first-hand, rather than hearing about them after the fact. Of course, this does balance itself out, somewhat, toward the end of the novel—when Hana, herself, is given the opportunity to take part in some of the novel's most impressive, and creative, action sequences.
In the end, what we have with The Forever Watch is a pair of likable protagonists exploring an interesting story in a fascinating, and well-developed, fictional world. It may be a little slow to get started, and the decision to keep the focus on a single character may have been a little disappointing, but that is certainly not enough to spoil the overall experience.
© 2020 Dallas Matier