Review copy of Aaru provided by David Meredith
Death is a fact of life. We obsess over it. We avoid it. We embrace it. We have never stopped searching for ways to put it off, to stop it, to cure it. For as long as stories and fiction have been things in human culture, we have been dreaming up ways around death. Characters in some stories live unnaturally long lives. Some are cursed with undeath, the ability to die and die again and never stay dead. Since the advent of science-fiction, our tales have turned towards technology instead of magic for answers. Cyborgs, transcendent states of being, and complex virtual worlds dominate the fictional landscape.
One of the benefits of self-publishing a book is that the author is not beholden to a publisher. There are no demands as to what you should write, no marketing showing what topics sell better, no calls to remove elements of the story. The author is only loyal to their own imagination. They write what they want, and what they hope readers will enjoy and think about long after closing the book. David Meredith has self-published several books on Amazon, writing what he would like to write. With Aaru, Meredith taps into the anxiety surrounding death and what comes after. He takes an already intriguing topic, surviving death through the digitization of the mind, and uses it to examine something far more relevant to today’s world than a futuristic technology.
The world of Aaru, which the novel is named after, is a beautiful one. Created by Elysium Enterprises, a fictional company in the story, Aaru is the next generation of virtual reality. Created by scientists actually looking for better MRI technology, they figured out how to use brain scans to replicate people. Their technology copies a person’s mind—their thoughts, their memories, their personality—and transfers it into a vast, virtual garden. The book opens with Rose Johnson, a teenager suffering from leukemia, as she dies and is reborn in Aaru. Her portions of the novel are an exploration of this space. What it means to live after your body is gone, what can a person do when they, and everything around them, is data. Rose flies, creates castles, shapes the very land for newcomers to Aaru. However, as interesting as the technology and her experience is, that is ultimately not what the novel is about.
Koren Johnson is thirteen when the book starts. Not finished with middle school, she has watched her older sister wither away in a hospital. She has watched her life fall apart around her and her parents descend into misery as they try to come to terms with Rose’s death. And that is when Elysium steps into the picture. They offer Rose a spot in virtual heaven, and all the Johnson’s have to do is sign over Koren. She becomes the spokesperson for the company, a child celebrity. Trotted out onto various talk shows, recording commercials, taking part in a reality show based around the families of Aaru residents. There are no illusions here. Koren’s life of fame causes only trouble for her. As a minor, her parents are responsible for her livelihood. They are the ones signing contracts, making money off her, consenting to installing video cameras in their house without her knowledge. Elysium, at the same time, is anything but altruistic. While they do appear to have the world’s interests at heart with Aaru, they do not hesitate to take advantage of Koren’s naivete and her parents’ greed.
Koren’s celebrity is described in almost creepy detail by Meredith, as he writes scenes in which a thirteen-year-old girl is sexualized by her parents and coached by Elysium to flirt and entice. Koren barely understands what she is being asked to do, only concerned with the fact that Rose is still here. Somehow. All this eventually attracts the attention of Aaru’s main villain. An unnamed character going by the username Magic Man, he is one of the most vile antagonists to ever grace a work of fiction. Magic Man becomes obsessed with Koren once she is in the public eye, regularly posting on a 4chan analog doctored photos to show this child is various explicit states. He stalks her. He obsesses over her. He believes that women’s only purpose is to be owned by men, to be controlled by men. This is a character whose end goal is to kidnap, rape, and murder an eighth grader. Every moment spent in his head is uncomfortable, but is also a fascinating look at the face of pure evil.
To be entirely honest, the tone of this review was entirely dependent on the character of Magic Man. If there was even a hint of apology on his part, if Aaru had tried to defend him in any way, there would be no positive paragraphs. Magic Man is the type of character who, when written wrong, can easily corrupt an entire novel. Luckily, while Meredith places us uncomfortably close to the man, he never strays into that territory. We see into Magic Man’s head, but the book manages to keep him at arm’s length with an expression of disgust. Especially with the events of the last year and a half, we can no longer tolerate men such as this. Magic Man may have a place in fiction as a truly evil villain, but this is the type of person no one should ever have in their life.
Ultimately, Aaru does suffer from the same affliction which nearly all self-published novels suffer from. David Meredith clearly has the imagination, but the writing itself does not always hold up to the lofty goals he has set himself. Ironically, the moments where the writing cannot hold up are the smaller scenes. Koren struggling with her emotions, finding comfort in her sister, their father falling apart in a drunken rage. Literary shorthand is used to give characters an illusion of depth, and there are more than a few stereotypes used to tell characters apart. Despite this, Aaru is a surprisingly well executed look at the price paid to become famous, and the dangers of being thrust into celebrity at a young age without supporting, responsible people standing besides you, acting for your best interests. The setup may have been fantastical, but the execution has never been more relevant than today.
Aaru may be found on Amazon
Total Read Time: 12 days
Next on the list: Spellbook of the Lost and Found, by Moïra Fowley-Doyle