Today you are very excited. Today is the day that you take your first ride by yourself in your new Level 5 autonomous car. It’s dead flash. You’ve been shown how to programme the sat nav by the very helpful and overly toothsome salesperson, and now it is sitting proudly on your driveway after having driven itself here from the showroom. How swish is that? No fuss with collecting it, it was just waiting there when you got home from work. Totes amaze beans. You climb inside and stare at all of the lights and displays that confront you. After a spot of trial and error you locate the sat nav, speak your destination – no more typing anymore – and sit back to enjoy your ride. You even have a celebratory Pimms in your hand because drink driving is a thing of the past. You’ve also taken the liberty of bringing your favourite jigsaw with you just because you could and it fits perfectly onto the little retractable table. Awesome. The car trundles off as smooth as you like and without any noise at all. It feels odd at first, but you soon forget the feeling as you get stuck into your jigsaw. Those 2000 pieces ain’t gonna jig themselves together. You are just basking in the satisfaction of fitting two particularly troublesome pieces together when suddenly the car lurches left. What the…? Then it lurches right. Your Pimms spills all over the new seats. Well, that’s gonna stain and that piece of cucumber will be a bugger to retrieve. Over the next 40 minutes your car zigs and zags, turning sharply left and right, then back on itself and diagonally across fields and over gardens. You are scared stiff as you have absolutely no control over the car at all. People in other cars screech to a halt and pedestrians and gardeners leap out of the way yelling obscenities as you pass by. Eventually the car comes to a sudden stop, throwing you forwards into the control console. Dazed and covered in jigsaw pieces you stare at the sat nav display screen. Where the hell are you? What? You’re miles from home. What the hell happened? You’ll be calling the overly toothsome salesperson right away to complain in the sternest of fashions. You try to work out where you are and so you zoom the map out a bit. Then a bit more. Then a bit more. Your route is traced in red all over the county, but your shock and anger is slowly replaced by amazement and confusion as you look at the red line and begin to realise that it appears to form a pattern. You zoom out even further. How could it…? Is that…? Yes, yes it looks like it is. Good grief… It’s a blurb:
‘When someone hacks into the systems of eight self-drive cars, their passengers are set on a fatal collision course.
The passengers are: a TV star, a pregnant young woman, a disabled war hero, an abused wife fleeing her husband, an illegal immigrant, a husband and wife – and parents of two – who are travelling in separate vehicles and a suicidal man. Now the public have to judge who should survive but are the passengers all that they first seem?’
Now, bear with me here, but I have a bit of a beef with the future. Okay, the future may seem all exciting and stuff, yada yada, blah blah, yawn yawn, yeah yeah, but, you see, the future is a killer. It’s a murdering scumbag. The future is the destroyer of dreams.
Hang on and hold up there a tad you grey bearded misery guts, what has the future ever done to you, eh? I mean, it hasn’t even got here yet. This is the present, in case you hadn’t noticed? Ah yes, but today is yesterday’s future and it is steadily and stealthily proceeding on its murderous path.
Okay, I hear you say, out with it! What has the future ever done to you? Why have you got this great big beef with something that hasn’t even happened yet? What’s the problem? Why are you getting your panties in a knot about it all? What’s pulling your beard, huh?
Well, if you’ll let me get a word in edgeways here, I shall tell you.
You see, the future is murdering childhood dreams. That future, with its smugness and its desire to do things autonomously. Do you see? Do you see where I’m going with this?
Oh, you don’t? Okay, I shall elaborate further.
What did you want to be as a child?
Maybe you wanted to be a lawyer? Okay, the future has you doing alright there because the world will always need lawyers, right? There will always be something that people will want to moan about, sue for or just need to get straightened out. I think, in the future lawyering should be okay.
Maybe you wanted to be a tree surgeon? Hey, trees will, hopefully, still be around in the future, and, I imagine, they will still need pruning, lopping, shaving, limbs amputating, re-painting or re-barking or whatever the hell it is that tree surgeons do to trees. So, yeah, tree surgeons.
Maybe you desired to be a film director. Now, I can’t imagine, even in this day of motion capture and photorealistic CGI, that the director shall ever vanish. They are after all the person who takes the script and turns it into the reality (or virtual reality), so I reckon that one’s okay too. Even actors will still be needed, for a while yet anyway. Even with the aforementioned motion capture, you can’t stick little dots onto thin air now, can you? There has to be someone, or something, in front of the camera to create the motion that needs to be captured. They’ll have to start call it something else otherwise and that’s just a faff.
So far so fairly good.
But what about those that may disappear in the very near future?
When I was a lad, one of the things that I wanted to be when I grew up – aside from being a ninja, the Human Torch, a Smurf wrangler (that may not be true) and taller – was a truck driver. That’s right; I wanted to drive one of those huge mothertrudging trucks that thundered down the motorways like in the American movies. I really wanted to drive a rig – that’s trucker speak for a truck, not a lorry, a truck, that’s a very important difference – and double really I wanted to drive my very own, with stuffed toy on the front and everything – dangly things dangling from the CB radio in the roof of the cabin, a CB radio with which to dangle said dangly things from, lots of lights that lit up at night, and a little bed in the back with a curtain that you drew across to be all snugly at night – just me and the open road. I used to pretend to drive my own truck in my bedroom. I’d be sat on the end of my bed, or maybe on a chair – actually we weren’t that posh so it was the end of the bed for me – with my arms grasping the biggest imaginary steering wheel that my little adolescent arms could stretch to and occasionally going “honk honnnnnnnnk” whilst pulling my imaginary – steady now – honking cable. Yes yes, grow up! 🙄 You see, for quite a long time this is all I wanted to be. I never saw it through, but the fact was that if I had wanted to as I grew older I could have done so. I am old enough to have had the ability to have made that dream come true if I had chosen to. But now, the future is almost here and the dreams of little children the world over will be shot to fuck as the dawn of autonomy creeps ever closer.
What will all of those children that right now will be sitting on the ends of their beds grasping at their imaginary steering wheels pretending to be either truck drivers or even bus drivers have to look forward to, huh? Can you see them all sitting there? I can, and do you know what else I can see as I imagine them all sat there?
I see tears.
I see the tears in their eyes because they realise, they know that their little dreams will never come to fruition because of the future. Because of autonomy.
The world will not need truck drivers or bus drivers in the future because these things will be driving themselves. All across the world, even in teeny tiny places like Fuji, the vehicles will be merrily going about their business without a care in the world whilst the little children cry.
How do you feel about that, future, huh? How do you feel about crushing all of those dreams, those hopes? How do you feel about making little children cry, huh? How do you feel about that? I’ll tell how it feels; it feels nothing, because the future is a cold unfeeling bastard that only thinks of itself. Stupid future.
And it’s not only wannabe truck and bus drivers that will suffer, oh no. What about plane drivers? Planes won’t need driving in the future. They’ll just take themselves off, fly to wherever they’re told, and then land themselves again without so much as a by your leave. There’ll be no captain to wish the passengers a safe flight, to fasten their seatbelts or to tell them what the weather will be like in Detroit. You’ll just have to find out for yourselves when you get off the plane and hope you’ve worn the most suitable clothing. Where will little Timmy go if he wants to see the plane drivers in their cabin? Nowhere is where because there won’t even be a cabin. They’ll probably refuel themselves too, just to be spiteful. There’s another childhood dream destroyed, that of the young would be plane refueller. Children all over the globe who are at this very minute playing at plane refuelling in their bedrooms, possibly using their parent’s vacuum cleaner hose as a pretend refuelling thingy, will grow up to have their hopes dashed. Dashed I tell you.
And then there are the train drivers. Those kiddies grasping at their imaginary dead man’s handle, going “choo choo” whilst pulling at their imaginary choo-choo cables all the while dreaming of pulling into a station and watching the passengers getting on and off knowing that it was they who got them their safely. Who, who I ask you, will say “all aboard” or “mind the gap” or “please stand clear of the doors” once the autonomousness takes over, eh? Driverless trains, who ever heard of such a nonsense.
Ship drivers is another one. Ships will be gadding about all over the oceans and rivers without anyone shouting “full steam ahead” or “land ahoy” anymore. Who is going to cry out “avast ye” or “splice me mainbrace” in the future, eh? I’ll tell you; no one. Unless they play some sort of tape over the tannoy, but I reckon even that will be put into the tape recorder by an autonomous robot thingy.
Even heart and brain surgeons won’t be safe from the future. Okay, granted we will still need actual surgeons to do the surgeoning stuff, but they won’t need to actually be in the theatre to do it. They’ll be lying by a pool somewhere whilst they conduct a virtual surgery via some robot or other who will doing all of the good squelchy stuff. Where’s the fun in that? If you can’t cut someone up and have a good rummage inside then what is the point, eh?
Granted I feel that that last is still some way off yet. We won’t be seeing robot doctor drones in our lifetimes with any luck. But, but driverless vehicles are most definitely the stuff of reality.
But there is a teeny ray of hope for those children alive today.
You see, the future is late.
It’s clearly been held up somewhere, possibly customs. That’s right; the future went through the red channel instead of sauntering through the green like everyone else with something to hide. It is probably being frisked and cavity searched as we speak. Maybe it got a bit cocky and shot its mouth off and has put the backs up of the customs peeps and they have decided to take their time processing it.
For, you see, the future should be here by now. We’ve been predicting the future for years now. How many times have you heard someone say: in the future we shall… , or, don’t worry, because in the future it will all be…
And so on.
For example: Where are the Copter Cops?
Where’s the rocket postmen and women?
What about our own personal flying saucers? Where are they, huh?
So, basically, the future is one big let down. It’s like Timmy Mallet: It’s bright, it’s colourful, it’s full of the promise of fun, but ultimately it’s, well, it’s shit.
Okay, okay, I’m being a bit hard on the future here I know (and on Mr. Mallett, I suppose), but there is a point to all of this. Well, there’s a kind of point as in as much as my reviews ever actually have one and it is thus:
The Passengers by John Marrs is set in the future, but it is a future that is just around the corner. If you stretch your neck out a bit, squint and look ever so slightly to the right you’ll see it. See it? Yes, that’s it. No, not that, that’s probably just a floater in your eye. Look a bit… yes, that’s it there. You see The Passengers is set in a future that is already pretty much here. It’s almost like it’s only ten seconds or so away. It’s tantalisingly near as most, if not all, of the technology is already with us, it just isn’t quite as refined yet.
The Passengers reads like an episode of Black Mirror, Charlie Brooker’s superb near future black comedy/satire. In that show he presents stories set in a future that you just know will become a reality one day. Most of the situations have already happened or are happening, but in a less technological fashion, for now. John Marrs has achieved a similar effect with his book. The technology for driverless autonomous cars is already here, but in The Passengers it has been refined and, dare I say perfected, to the point of being rolled out across the whole of the UK, and that they are fast becoming the standard mode of transport. The UK is leading the world in revolutionising the way we will travel. They hope to have a ban on all non-autonomous vehicles within a decade. Well, that’s lovely isn’t it? Short of actually flying this is pretty much the future that we all have been dreaming of for decades and more. But someone is having none of it. No thank you very much. This person has an axe to grind with autonomous vehicles, and that person is…
Catchy, huh? The Hacker has taken over eight autonomous vehicles. Some of them are targeted whilst others just happen to be unlucky – which is understating it a tad. They come to quickly realise that the are no longer in control of their cars and from then on the do-do heads quickly to the rotary blade air cooling device.
But who is this Hacker, and why are they targeting seemingly innocent civilians like this? I mean, one of them is pregnant for jeebus’s sake. Maybe they are some disgruntled child, now all growed up and who has finally realised that their lifelong dreams of becoming a bus/truck driver lies in tatters so they decide to take revenge on the government to, like, really show them. Clearly I am not going to give anything away here (or did I *wink emoji*)(no, I didn’t *reassuring nod emoji*)(or did I *wink wink emoji*)(no, don’t worry, I really didn’t *double reassuring nod emoji with happy face emoji*), so fear not, but something has put a bag of bees up their fundament and things really start to go very badly indeed.
Each of the eight cars has a person inside it – a passenger. Seems logical, dunnit, but each of these people, although seemingly innocent and innocuous, apparently has something to hide.
And The Hacker knows it.
Ooh, he is clever you know. Seriously. You see, not only has he hacked into the cars CPU brains, or whatever they have for brains, but he also knows pretty much everything about them – yes, even that – and they are not afraid to let them know about it. After getting into their cars and obliviously heading off towards their chosen destinations, The Hacker strikes. They are a calm and soothing soul. There’s no histrionics or evil cackling, no over the top malevolence or Vincent Price style voice, more’s the pity, but each passenger is told pretty much the same thing, give or take a word or two. Basically it goes like this:
‘I have programmed your car to take you on an alternative route this morning. And in two hours and thirty minutes, it is likely that you will be dead.’
Now that isn’t something you want to hear when you were only popping out to Sainsbury’s for some Pringles and a loaf of bread, is it? Each of the passengers takes this pretty much as you’d expect really. Some initially treat it as a joke, but it soon becomes abundantly clear that this is no joke and The Hacker really does mean to kill them. Only one of the passengers remains oblivious for longer than the others, faded TV and film star Sofia Bradbury. She convinces herself that this all part of a reality tv show called “Celebs Against The Odds” that she has been set up for, which is fine with her as it will put her firmly back into the public eye again. As such she is the only one who remains calm as things slowly unfold around her. Boy is she in for a shock when the truth hits home.
The other passengers are a mixture of ladies and gentlemen most of whom The Hacker has targeted, but as I mentioned earlier also one or two who have just been caught up, the poor buggers. I’m not going to repeat them all here, I shall refer you back up to the blurb for that info. No, it’s not lazy so, shush.
Now, as if being stuck in their cars on a collision course to a crunchy and fiery death – ooh, did I forget to mention that they are on a collision course to a crunchy and fiery death? I think I did. Sorry. They are all on a collision course to a crunchy and fiery death at a destination as yet unknown – with their destinies being controlled by some nutcase deep in the intersphere somewhere wasn’t bad enough, they find themselves on TV. That’s right, The Hacker is beaming their fates all across social media and beyond. It isn’t long before their plight is world news and people start to cast their judgement via various social media outlets and trending hashtags.
But that isn’t all. What? Crikey, there’s more? Oh yes, The Hacker isn’t just holding these eight people hostage in their cars, he also has several other people at his mercy and those people form the Vehicle Inquest Jury, a highly secretive body of people who apportion blame where an accident involving an autonomous vehicle occurs, led by the highly odious MP and cabinet minister Jack Larsson. We see this whole thing through the eyes of Libby Dixon; a nurse who has been called up for this jury duty, but is unable to tell anyone about it or that she is even on the jury due to its highly secretive and sensitive nature. Jack describes what they do thus:
‘[…] in accordance with the Road Traffic Act Autonomous Car Provisions, I’m obliged to remind you that I am calling a start to meeting number 3121 of the Vehicle Inquest Jury. Our purpose is to hear what each car’s black box has to say about an accident and thus apportion liability. Today, the burden of responsibility will be upon you to decide whether people involved in fatal collisions with driverless vehicles were either killed lawfully or unlawfully. Either man or machine is to blame, and you will decide.’
The whole operation is decidedly shifty and underhand, it smacks of cover-up and propaganda, and I am not the only one who thinks so because The Hacker has them firmly in their sights. The Hacker has infiltrated their base of operations and, just like with the passengers locked in their cars, they know everything about them. Oh, and they have to choose which one of the passengers gets to survive. That’s right, they have to decide who lives and who dies.
Oooh, it is exciting.
The Passengers is a truly superb book. No, scrap that, it’s a fucking superb book. See, it’s made me say a proper swear on my blog, it’s that good. There, that really is all you need to know. That’s the review right there. You can all go home now.
You’re still here? Oh, okay, um, I’ll think of something else to say about it then shall I? It’s not like I have a job and mouth to feed now, is it!
What else can I say about this brilliant book. Well, it is clever, oh so very clever. That John Marrs is a seriously clever bastard. If you’ve read any of his other books (and, like, totes seriously, if you haven’t I will come around there and march you to the nearest bookshop and force you, no, sorry, encourage, you to buy them, with menaces), then you will know what a treat lies in store.
It came as a very pleasant surprise to find that this book is a kind of follow-up to The One. It isn’t a sequel so don’t worry your little heads about missing anything, but The Passengers is set in the same universe and if you have read The One you’ll be grinning from ear to there at a couple of the references. Well, I was anyway. I love it when authors put easter eggs into their books for long time readers. As I say, it doesn’t alienate anyone who hasn’t so much as glanced at a John Marrs book before. Also, on the subject of The One, this will soon be a Netflix series. I know right, how exciting is that? I’ll tell you how, VERY how, that’s how. I’m moistened by this greatly and if you read The One you will be too. And that’s a Beardy Book Blogger Guarantee. Guaranteed.
But I digress as this is a review of The Passengers. I don’t want Ebury Publishing hunting me down and telling me off now. Or worse, hacking into my car and causing me grief. Mind you, I’d like to see them try considering I don’t have a car, but they’d find a way, so I’d better get back on track.
Where were we? I honestly have no idea. Let me read back a bit. Excuse me….
Right, I think I’ve got it.
John Marrs, clever bastard, yes. So yes, he really is. In The Passengers he has come up with a scenario that absolutely will be a reality in the not too distant future. Autonomous vehicles are here already of course, though on this scale it is still several years away yet, but John has a way of making you feel that this is actually happening right now. The little headings at the start of each chapter look and feel like the real thing (you’ll see what I mean), and they really draw you into the reality that John is trying to create. He has created a world that feels real and, just like Black Mirror, is literally around the corner.
Social media features heavily throughout The Passengers as The Hacker fills peoples news feeds with live footage from inside the cars and inside the Vehicle Inquest Jury, throwing these people’s lives, and their secrets, open to public scrutiny and, ultimately, judgement. The Passengers shows how easily it can be to manipulate public opinion through something as simple as a hashtag. This of course is an all too real phenomenon reflecting how we are leading increasingly public lives via the many social media outlets available to us if we choose to use them. In this respect The Passengers is very relevant to today. This isn’t the future, it’s the Now. How many of us really stop to think of those who are on the receiving end of our messages and tweets? Many of us do of course, but we have all probably been on the wrong end of a misunderstood tweet or become the victim of online trolls who want nothing more than to just upset and wind people up. The Passengers highlights this beautifully and had me genuinely ‘grrrrrrrr-ing’ and fuming at some of the responses to the passengers predicaments, whether justified or not.
But all of this would be nothing if it wasn’t for the characters in this book and this is where John truly shines. The Passengers has a veritable smorgasbord of characters within it pages. The passengers themselves are all fully rounded and highly believable individuals. There are some who you will hate, and others who you will genuinely root for as your sympathies shift over the course of the book. John slowly reveals what you need to know as The Hacker takes their time, expertly manipulating everyone until the fateful collision hap….. ah no, I won’t spoil that one for you all.
As I have already so eloquently put it above, The Passengers is superb. It is stunning in its originality, in its premise, in its characterisation and in its execution. This is a book that in years to come you will look back on and think, hey, how did he know that was all going to happen? I don’t mean the hijacking, I hope, but the general ideas. This is a book that is the very definition of ‘un-put-downable’ as the pieces of the story slowly start to come together and it races, just like our captive passengers, to its dramatic conclusion. You have already probably gathered that I am rather a fan of Mr. Marrs, but that hasn’t clouded my judgement of this book. There are a couple of teeny tiny issues such as how did The Hacker know to get everyone in the right place at the right time, that sort of thing, but really, who gives a shit? I didn’t and I know that you really won’t either. If you want to read a book that is utterly compelling, original, near-future believable, wonderfully written, full of genuine shock and surprise and chock full of superb characters then look no further than The Passengers. And when you’ve read this one go back and read all of his other books. You will thank me later.
You can buy The Passengers in eBook NOW from the link below or in paperback from the 30th May 2019 from a physical bricks and mortar shop of your own choosing:
It will be out in the US in August.
ABOUT JOHN – from the mouth of Marrs:
Until recently, I worked as a freelance journalist based in London, England, and spent 25 years interviewing celebrities from the world of television, film and music for national newspapers and magazines.
I wrote for publications including The Guardian’s Guide and Guardian Online; OK! Magazine; Total Film; Empire; Q; GT; The Independent; Star; Reveal; Company; Daily Star and News of the World’s Sunday Magazine.
My debut novel The Wronged Sons, was released in 2013 and in May 2015, I released my second book, Welcome To Wherever You Are.
In May 2017 came my third book, The One. It was chosen as the book of the month for BBC Radio 2’s Book Club.
The Wronged Sons was re-edited and re-released in July 2017 under a new title, When You Disappeared.
My fourth book, The Good Samaritan, was released in November 2017 and became a Number One hit world-wide.
In 2018 I released my police procedural thriller Her Last Move, and thanks to my brilliant readers, I was able to start working as a full-time author.
In April 2019 came The Passengers, a thriller with a futuristic twist set in driverless cars. It will be released in the US in August.
In summer this year, filming starts for a ten-part TV series of The One, set to broadcast on Netflix worldwide in early 2020.
My most hugerist and most graceful thanks to John Marrs himself and to Tracy Fenton for inviting me on to this tour. Although they did provide me with an advance PDF copy I bought the eBook myself and it is this version that I have reviewed.
Don’t forget to check out the rest of the remaining dates on the tour and also those that have hosted previously.