Imagine if each person was allowed the luxury of claiming their own truth, building a reality of their own in which they can live. Imagine the danger that would pose, how quickly those lies would metastasize, and the extraordinary threat that would pose to the world.
Alas, it’s easy for us to imagine a world where people can build their own reality out of lies, but in Golden State, Ben H. Winters chooses to imagine the opposite, a world where lies are outlawed. It comes with its own set of problems.
The book’s main character is Laszlo Ratesic, a longtime member of the Speculative Service, a sort of “lie detective” unit within a country known as the Golden State. Laszlo and his colleagues have the ability to sense lies and the authority to access the many recording devices and documents that are part of the fabric of their world in order to get at the truth. Those who are caught in a lie are subject to fines, jail, even exile. And people are easy to catch when every moment is on camera and when people are required to document all of their activities and maintain those documents for later reference if needed.
The novel is built around a case involving the death of a roofer who has fallen off a roof. When Laszlo and his new partner, Aysa Paige, are called to the scene, they notice some anomalies that are difficult to pin down but worth pursuing. But the pursuit leads them to bigger mysteries, involving those who are charged with administering Objective Truth in the Golden State.
It’s not hard to imagine how a world like the Golden State could go wrong. Making lies illegal doesn’t make them impossible, nor does making them easy to prove make them impossible to hide. As in our world, where lies are routinely winked at or shrugged off, the people with the power are in fact able to write their own truth. It’s just that in the Golden State, people are oblivious to that possibility. Gaslighting, which is all too easy in a world where we’re on the alert, becomes a cinch in a world where everyone is presumed honest (or easy to catch).
Winters structures the book as a straightforward thriller, with occasional interludes from an outside narrator who comments on the action. We learn about the world by watching Laszlo work his case. It’s an effective way of handling the world building, as a detective will of course have to visit lots of different parts of his world, while explaining what he’s doing to his newbie partner. The book lost a little steam for me as the plot got more labyrinthine, but, for the most part, I enjoyed myself all the way through. It’s a cleverly conceived world, and a well plotted book.