Golden State, by Ben H. Winters

Laszlo Ratesic, the protagonist of Ben H. Winter’s thought-provoking alternate history novel, Golden State, has a strange ability. Like other members of the Speculative Service, he can sense lies. He reacts to anything more than a figure of speech or a little white lie as though he has an allergy. Lies make him physically ill. This ability makes him an important law enforcement officer because his post-Apocalyptic state depends on every citizen telling the truth all the time. But, humans being humans, there are still liars and they are about to seriously bruise Laszlo’s sense of reality.

After a chapter that is a marvel of efficient world-building, in which Laszlo arrests a young man who lies to cover for his drug-stealing brother, he is saddled with a partner he doesn’t want and is dispatched to check for anomalies at the scene of what appears to be an accidental death. Laszlo’s new partner, Aysa Paige, urges him to look deeper. She tells him that something isn’t right. And, once he starts looking, Laszlo starts to see anomalies. The dead man wasn’t supposed to be at work that day. The house where he died belongs to a judge who is up to something. The more he digs, the more Laszlo starts to wonder if this death is somehow linked to his brother’s death years before.

The Golden State is a fascinating social experiment. residents exchange facts when they greet each other, everyone fears being exiled outside of the State, and no one is permitted to lie above minor metaphors. What would it mean if no one could lie? If they were always caught and punished for it? It seems like a good thing. Lies, misinformation, propaganda, disinformation, willful mucking around with the truth have made our current society an appalling mess. Slowly, however, we and Laszlo learn what we’re missing when a) we give up the right to imagine something different and b) the fact that some humans will always try to cheat the system.

The end of Golden State is surprisingly poignant. I wasn’t expecting it after a mash up of mystery, alternate history, science fiction, and thriller. I enjoyed Golden State very much, though I did spot a few places where the thought experiment threatened to take over the plot. Readers who like a bit of philosophical and emotional depth to their alternate history/science fiction will enjoy wondering, as Laszlo does, about what truth really is, what it means to try and create a an objective reality everyone can agree on, and what happens when a true believer finds the worm in the apple.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.

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