The premise of this futuristic novel initially seems so bonkers that one is inclined to laugh in response. Not that there’s anything cheerful going on. Imagine a world in which free speech is, in a literal, monetary sense, prohibited, so that each word a person utters is subject to copyright that has to be paid for. Welcome to the nightmarish society of All Rights Reserved.
The book’s scenario provides a twenty-first century twist on dystopian fictions of the past. Our narrator Speth is about to have her ‘last day’, a coming-of-age ceremony in which she begins, with the adornment of a cuff that registers her every word, to pay for her speech. When a boy she has befriended commits suicide, though, she refuses to speak in spontaneous revolt against the system.
Speth’s predicament as a ‘silent’ turns much of the book into a meditation on communication. On the other hand, her job as a ‘placer’, in which she prowls rooftops leaving free products in homes in order to promote sales, gives parts of the novel a touch of superhero élan. A showdown with Silas Rog, the cold-blooded lawyer at the heart of the city’s cruel legalistic system, takes place in the final pages. These are action-packed though a little corny at times, with Rog holding forth like a Bond villain before the collapse of his evil empire.
Nevertheless, the novel’s pernicious conceit is well sustained and has enough in common with our own world to leave the reader uneasy. You’ll never see speech, lawyers or algorithms in the same light again.