The Trellis by Jools Cantor
The Trellis is a remarkable book. It engaged me from the beginning, held on, and eventually wrung me out the other end. It’s the story of two women. The first, Melody, is a detective summoned to the huge corporate building known as the Trellis to solve a murder that occurred on the premises. The second, Debbie, is a mediator looking to start a new job at the same place. Their stories take readers through an extraordinary tale of the near-future in which corporations run America, unfettered capitalism is the name of the game, and people start to wonder about whether they’ll be entirely replaced by AI programs.
The dark humor about unfettered capitalism dominates the early portion of the book, setting the stage for a, er, setting that supports the rest of the book. Whether it’s Debbie’s concerns about having drones snap videos of her face on the way to an interview, effectively sinking her before she starts because she had a wrong facial expression or Melody’s offer to a bigshot at the Trellis to expedite certain parts of her investigation for a moderate surcharge, there are all kinds of subtle or not-so-subtle looks at what happens if capitalism becomes the end and the beginning.
After several scenes that combine these two main characters’ everyday lives with vignettes of rampant consumerism, the plot switches things up and Melody’s investigation goes in earnest while Debbie spends time at her new job, discovering the ins and outs of her new job while balancing the concerns of her significant other back home. More and more complexity piles on here, as we learn about the inner workings of the police force in Chicago and how there’s another, larger force that looms over the investigation in which Melody is mired. Debbie, for her part, has to navigate office life while also trying to mediate disputes about often absurd conflicts and not lose her job because she’s being watched too closely.
The Trellis is a novel that has layers upon layers of secrets, and it’s not clear when first reading how deep it goes. However, once one gets deep into the plot, one finds that each small layer that got peeled away makes a difference to the whole, sometimes in surprising ways. The story is dense at times with the amount of detail, but the payoff each time feels satisfying.
I mentioned above the worries about AI programs. Cantor takes this in a different direction than most sci-fi I’ve seen. Essentially, she concedes through her characters that AIs could easily outthink and outsmart us but asserts that they simply don’t because they aren’t programmed to destroy us. Instead, they are content to do things like find out how a murder happened and dedicate all their energy to that until the problem is solved before moving on to another. It’s a subtle difference from how AI/robot tech is often treated in sci-fi, but it made for some compelling reading whenever the topic was broached. And, like so many other threads that seem to be unconnected to anything else in the novel, this ends up becoming important towards the end of the story.
The ending of the book is something I can’t really say enough about, but I don’t want to hugely spoil it. Let’s just say it took me somewhat by surprise but didn’t shock me, if that makes sense. It is the kind of ending I find myself enjoying more and more, in which consequences of all human activity can come down on some individuals.
If all this effusive praise seems a bit much, I would note that I didn’t think the novel was perfect. One very brief scene talking about how people in the now-separated country of California are coming for arbitration regarding preferred terms being used for people seems to hint at concerns about pronouns and other things being wholly unimportant. It’s hard to tell given the tone of the rest of the novel if this is the author’s voice making the claim or one of the characters, but it was a bit jarring. I’d say this: if something is ethically important, it doesn’t cease being so just because the state of the world has changed. Another very minor point is that the novel takes a little bit to restart the engine going from the spectacularly grim/funny introductory scenes before kicking into gear on the mystery and new job plots. I never got bored, but some may see that section as a little bit of a drag.
Jools Cantor’s The Trellis is a fantastic read that I highly recommend to fans of sci-fi mixed with mystery, dark humor, and/or flashes of cyberpunk. It’s a spectacular debut novel, and I hope Cantor has more coming.
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