Book Review

The Passengers by John Marrs

the passengers

When someone hacks into the systems of eight self-drive cars, their passengers are set on a fatal collision course.

The passengers are: a TV star, a pregnant young woman, a disabled war hero, an abused wife fleeing her husband, an illegal immigrant, a husband and wife – and parents of two – who are travelling in separate vehicles and a suicidal man. Now the public have to judge who should survive but are the passengers all that they first seem?

The Passengers is set in the not too distant future in a Britain where driverless cars are the norm, and the majority are fully autonomous with no pedals or steering wheel for the passenger to take control should they wish to do so.  There are benefits to such a system.  The risk of human error is removed, as is the possibility of a driver being distracted, and the move to driverless vehicles has had the desired impact in significantly reducing the number of road traffic accidents and traffic jams.  With the vehicles being electric, there’s an environmental benefit, too.  Marrs does also highlight the risks with such a system, and I think that this novel plays upon the fears around artificial intelligence harboured by some.  While the technology isn’t necessarily a bad thing in itself, there is the potential for those in power who might be somewhat less scrupulous than we might like to misuse such technological advancement for their own purposes, and Marrs portrays this brilliantly in The Passengers.

With the eight driverless vehicles remotely hijacked and set on a collision course, it falls to a small group of jurors and the court of public opinion to decide who should live and who should die.  This part of the novel was brilliantly done, as we see mob justice come into action through social media as the eight passengers are judged and, in many cases, found wanting.  I thought that this highlighted the power that the media has in what it chooses to share, and the risks in making a decision based only on the (often limited) information provided by various news sources.  By providing biased and incomplete information, public opinion can be swayed drastically, while knowing the whole story might paint things in a very different light.  This was brilliantly portrayed in the novel as the Hacker chooses what information about the eight passengers to share, and it’s these snippets upon which each person’s fate is decided.

The main protagonist is Libby, a young woman against driverless vehicles who is selected to take part in jury duty.  Her jury duty is a little different in this near-future Britain, as this jury is given a single task – to decide who is to blame for the few road accidents that do still occur – was it human error, or is there an issue with the AI / software that can and should be improved to prevent similar incidents in the future?  I have to admit that I didn’t really take to Libby initially, as she seemed to be afraid of her own shadow.  Some people thrive on pressure, however, and so it proves to be the case here as Libby and her fellow jurors are required to play a key role in deciding on the fate of the eight unfortunates whose vehicles have been hacked.  If I was largely ambivalent towards Libby, I thought that Marrs’ portrayal of a sleazy, self-serving politician was spot on – it’s been a while since I’ve loathed any fictional character quite as much as Jack Larsson.

The Passengers is a fast-paced and highly entertaining novel, and I can see it being a big hit poolside this summer.  I did have a few minor issues with the plot twists, some of which felt as though they were there purely to provide a twist when I felt that the story was strong enough without them.  This is just my opinion, of course, and it’s a minor quibble that didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the novel.  I think that The Passengers is a great novel to lose yourself in for a few hours as you race through to find out the fate of the eight passengers.

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