A novice police officer assigned to watch over a refugee group tries to figure out whether the refugees have been framed for terrorism—and where the real killers are lurking. Technically, this is an accurate description of the plot of David Musgrave’s debut novel, Lambda. Sounds like a pretty straightforward potboiler, right? But from its first page, Lambda is up to something weirder and more unwieldy, ditching a linear narrative and setting the story in an alternate-universe Britain where you can get in trouble with the cops for damaging a talking toothbrush.
In Lambda’s bizarro-world 2019, advances have been made in artificial intelligence to the point that “sentient objects” have been granted rights, including said toothbrush, aka the ToothFriendIV. Meanwhile, the police test out an AI system that will both accuse someone of a crime and go ahead and assassinate them, although the government prefers to call this mitigation, neutralization, deactivation, or closure of agency. It may sound like a Philip K. Dick pastiche, but Musgrave’s debut is more ambitious than the tropes it borrows, arranging them into original, arresting literary sci-fi.
Lambda follows a cop named Cara Gray as she grows all too familiar with the official jargon for murder. She joins the force after she abruptly swaps an activist’s life on a left-wing commune for detective work, then winds up enmeshed in a shadowy governmental program involving a rogue cybercrime haven in the desert called the Republic of Severax. Her personal life is as messy as her professional entanglements. She dates a misanthropic coder named Peter who obsesses over two things, neither of which are her: a talking toothbrush and Severax. (Musgrave shades in a fine portrait of a specific strain of dirtbag techie with Peter, whose main personality trait is interrupting documentary films to add his two cents.)
Cara is no futuristic Colombo—she’s remarkably, touchingly bad at her job. After her first assignment as a police officer goes awry, she is shifted onto a project monitoring lambdas, a population of around 100,000 mysterious people who are genetically human but evolved to be miniscule in size and semi-aquatic, with tails instead of legs and an inscrutable social structure. By the time she is put on this beat, there’s already been a widespread institutional effort to integrate these lambdas into society. We learn that they began arriving on the shores of Iceland and the UK several years prior, with only foggy knowledge of how they got there. They know they swam from somewhere, and that their voyage involved dodging hungry Greenland sharks; some of them speak vaguely of their parents, known only as the “Four Fertile Pairs.”
In the years since they began appearing, the lambdas have assumed a status similar to refugees, with government assistance to help them get around and find housing and jobs. But anti-lambda sentiment continues to grow as Cara gets to know the beleaguered population, who live in deliberately flooded basement apartments and refer to one another as “brothers” and “sisters.” They are often attacked in transit to their low-paying service jobs, and many have grown skittish. Cara bonds with an eccentric, friendly lambda named Gavin, who is desperate to learn more about his parents—and whose fear of getting murdered by angry, xenophobic “landy” vigilantes deepens every day. Although her supervisor expressly forbids it, Cara agrees to get in contact with an Icelandic researcher who might help Gavin discover his submerged roots.
That’s a lot of plot to follow, and Musgrave’s stylistic choices are as byzantine as his narrative ones. Using alien figures as an allegory for an oppressed population isn’t exactly groundbreaking—it probably accounts for about half of sci-fi—but the writing itself is crisp, bold, and proudly odd. The passages following Cara’s journey from activist to cop and nearly back again are interrupted by commercial-break style pages informing the reader where we are at with our “free trial of EyeNarrator Pro.” (These bits give off a strong whiff of George Saunders’ short stories.) The opening EyeNarrator passage indicates that the story we’re reading is software-generated prose, and Musgrave hints at this not-quite-human narration through conspicuously strange language choices. The characters’ blood pressure levels are mentioned, and movements are described in strangely technical language: “Carolyn revolved 12 degrees anticlockwise” one sentence reads. Another: “Cara’s eye saccades took in the woman’s highly reflective brown irises.” This book may have set the world record for usage of the word “saccade,” which appears with surprising frequency, considering it’s something nobody ever says.
There’s also a series of monologues—the book opens and closes with them, and they’re sprinkled throughout—from a mysterious character named “Mr. Hello.” These stilted, melancholy soliloquies describe Mr. Hello’s unconventional upbringing and lonely lifestyle and are reminiscent of the host interview scenes in Westworld, when the naive robots blithely rattle off truths they can’t really access. In fact, tonally, Lambda has much in common with Westworld, good and bad—it’s overstuffed, brainy, occasionally ponderous, and sometimes goes completely off the rails. The main disappointment of Lambda is its ending, which lacks the satisfying wrap-up of a grade-A true crime yarn. Instead, it leaves many loose ends—a whole fringe of dropped plot points.
Still, where it fails to effectively resolve its mysteries, Lambda dazzles in its ingenuity and ability to conjure mood. I only just read it for the first time last week, and I already barely remember the wispy ending. But Musgrave’s evocative images from an off-kilter world will linger.