A Review of Tom Hillenbrand’s Qube

For a change, this is a review of a book I got as an advanced reader copy. It’s a German book by an author who has been translated into English before, so there is a realistic hope that this book will be translated into English at some point. Ostensibly I’m writing this review only in English because my audience i.e. at this point still almost exclusively my nerdfighter friends are mostly English-speaking and only in small parts speakers of German.

Though that probably isn’t the weirdest part of this review. No, crown probably goes to the fact that this is part two within a universe called Hologrammatica by Tom Hillenbrand. I have in fact not read part one yet, and I don’t know if I will, just for logistical reasons, so bear with me should that first part have substantial influences on your reading of this second instalment. But without much further ado, let’s get into this review of Qube.

Though I probably have to make the disclaimer here, that I received this book as an ARC, and didn’t pay for it. I’m trying to not let this really influence my review of it, but this is called transparency. Here’s my review on vorablesen.de (German).

Physical Book

Now, holding a book in your hand that’s only about to be released to the wider public has a special feel to it. This book is a pretty standard German paperback though. That means it’s nothing special, but it also isn’t crap. The cover design is simple yet intriguing, so basically the way I like my covers to be, even if I’m as of late a bit bored with red and black and white cover designs. Yes, yes those are striking colours, and easy to combine in ways that look good, but I just want something more daring.

The Setting & World-Building

Qube takes place in a future post-climate-change, after the advancement of computation into the realm of true artificial intelligence, or short AI. And while you might want to insinuate that this book might be a bit too much in love with technology, this nevertheless remains a world you can find yourself swallowed in without the immersion being broken by inconsistencies or other problems of world-building.

Sometimes however the technobabble masks too much of the plot and its really interesting themes though. Sure, there’s a plethora of technology to explain in this book from holograms, to mind-uploads and body swaps to the ins and out of information security and AI, that might be too much for a technologically non-interested reader, but sometimes I would have preferred to have more of that outsourced to the glossary, at the end.

I’m not going to dissect the world of this book in regards to its plausibility in regards to being a prediction of the world in 2091. That is a road I don’t want to travel on. There are definitely technologies in here that sound more like magic to me than like technology, but as Arthur C. Clarke’s famous adage states:

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Arthur C. Clarke

The Plot

Beneath this splurge of technology hides a quite multi-faceted plot. Hillenbrand, especially in the first half manages to juggle multiple interlace threads of plots, separated by almost torturous cliff-hangers. Sometimes, of course, a particular thread was more interesting and cut short by an intermezzo of all the other plot-threads, but that is the price you have to pay for this interspersed way of telling a story with multiple main actors spread around the earth and at times the solar system. Yes, this novel contains space travel, though the main plot remains steadfastly on the earth.

There the plot starts rolling with a headshot that almost kills Calvary Doyle, an investigative reporter on track to solve a mystery around the last incident around AI in 2049. The police investigations into Calvary Doyle’s attempted killing prove to be more complicated than a simple case of attempted murder however and start to involve multi-billion-dollar companies, AI, death and a plethora of body-swaps.

The Characters

And who carries out these body swaps? Mostly Commander Fran Bittner, sometimes Francesco or Francesca depending on the appearance of his current vessel. And that is probably one of the most interesting points in regards to the characters. We get to enjoy some form of non-binary, maybe genderfluid, maybe bigender representation. Of course, it might be stifled by German’s lack of gender-neutral pronouns and also might not be really concerned with much of what the LGBTQ community is concerned with, but the main character’s gender is explicitly discussed at least once as “outside of the binary”.

Other than that the book is just filled up with a normal amount of solid characters. To me, none of them feels overdrawn or like paper cut-outs to fill the story, but all of our main characters seem to have understandable motivation. The main characters are of diverse genders, though definitely lack in racial and ethnic diversity if not as Fran Bittner body swapped into a body of another race. Only side characters get to be of another background natively in this regard.

One last criticism of the characters I have to mention: their naming. And this criticism is somewhat in keeping with the aforementioned technobabble this book succumbs to. The names Hillenbrand throws around, are too stereotypically English. They are exactly what you think a German would make up when tasked with finding stereotypical names. They sometimes don’t read as names at all, and sometimes are just funny. Especially, in the first couple of chapters, these names really got to the point where they ripped a hole in the hologram of my immersion

The Writing

Naming and technobabble are probably the points that hurt Qube‘s writing the most. There’s a little issue of pacing towards the end of the plot, though if that actually is an issue or just a plot-twist probably depends on your reading of the book, for me at least it was a hump I had to drag my ADHD brain over to then get back to enjoying the book quite a lot.

In terms of writing, this book seems to be a pretty standard sci-fi thriller. There’s nothing that sticks out like a sore thumb in here, but also nothing that is egregiously well written, except maybe for the plot interlacing.

Summary

And I think that is also a good summary for this book. It’s an interesting and solidly written sci-fi thriller. It’s genuinely gripping at points, but it’s no masterwork.

There are a whole lot of great thoughts and ideas here, from immortality via body swaps to artificial intelligence. There’s some non-binary representation, but a lack of racial and ethnical representation. I think a bit more focus on one of these ideas, a smaller scope wouldn’t have harmed this book, but as it is it’s still an enjoyable and thought-provoking read. And you definitely don’t need to have read part 1 of the Hologrammatica series to understand Qube. At least I didn’t even notice there was a part 1 to this.

My last fiction review was about Gabriel García Márquez’ Love in the Time of Cholera. And my last book review was about Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism. Is There No Alternative? My next book review concerns another German book: Der Freie Hund by Wolfgang Schorlau and Claudio Caiolo.

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