Book Review: The Passengers by John Marrs

The Passengers

John Marrs

August 27, 2019

You’re riding in your self-driving car when suddenly the doors lock, the route changes and you have lost all control. Then, a mysterious voice tells you, “You are going to die.”

Earlier this year, cult film fans around the world mourned the death of Larry Cohen, the B-movie auteur whose horror and sci-fi thrillers left an indelible mark on audiences in the 1970s and 80s. Cohen’s best-known movies—Q: The Winged Serpent, The Stuff, It’s Alive, and others—were high-concept thrillers suffused with social commentary and pitch-black humor. An Aztec lizard god terrorizes Manhattan, a strange “dessert” substance turns consumers into zombies, babies mutated from environmental pollution terrorize their parents—Cohen made the wildest concepts work, even when they shouldn’t have.

Though Cohen’s no longer with us, it’s still easy to find his attitude on screen and in print. That Cohen-esque, anything-goes B-movie approach is especially evident in The Passengers, the latest novel from UK author John Marrs. Set in the unspecified near future, The Passengers envisions a world in which automated, driverless cars are the norm. In fact, they’re the only sort of cars the British government allows on the road. The cars are supposed to be smart, safe, and secure—able to get passengers to and from their destinations quickly, without accidents, and without interference from malicious hackers.

The Passengers opens on the day when all that changes. Eight seemingly random passengers across England—a young pregnant woman, an aging actress, a wife fleeing her abusive husband, a recent immigrant, a suicidal man, an elderly war veteran, and a husband and wife—find that their cars have been hijacked by an enigmatic hacker. Meanwhile, in London, a secretive government-appointed jury that investigates traffic accidents involving driverless cars finds that its proceedings have also been taken over. The hacker informs the passengers, the committee, and, via social media, the world at large, that he plans to kill all but one of the passengers—and that it’s up to the public to decide who is saved.

It’s a big concept, and Marrs wastes little time in getting to the action. To show he’s serious, the hacker remotely detonates one of the hijacked cars, a move that panics the passengers, horrifies the jury, and sends the rest of the world into a social media frenzy. Amoral and seemingly omnipotent, the hacker meets his match in the form of Libby Dixon. The closest character the book has to a protagonist, Libby is the token average citizen on the jury, a voice of reason and innocence amidst an outbreak of madness and cynicism. Libby also has to contend with Jack Larsson, a powerful Member of Parliament and the jury’s foreman, who wants to deal aggressively with the hacker—starting with destroying the cameras the hacker planted in the jury’s meeting space.

“I’d think twice before I did that,” said the Hacker. “It wouldn’t be the wisest decision you’ve ever made. For every one of your actions today, there will be a reaction.”

 

“Jack,” whispered Muriel anxiously, “perhaps you should listen…”

 

“They know what we look like and who we are,” Jack replied stubbornly. “We must nip this in the bud. We cannot be seen to be kowtowing.”

 

Jack offered a smile to the lens below before stamping upon it and twisting the heel of his shoe for good measure. The screen went blank. However, the image was hastily replaced by another view of the room and its people, this time from a different angle. The smile slipped from Jack’s face.

 

“Do you think I installed just one camera?” asked the Hacker.

In a less cautious book, an author might keep their focus on the cat-and-mouse game between the hacker and the authorities while the hapless passengers take a (pun intended) backseat. Marrs has enough going on with his well-informed prognostications about automated cars and the ripple effects produced by such innovations that he could’ve done just that—how were the cars hacked? How did the hacker select his victims, load their cars with explosives, and develop the elaborate counter-measures that keep the various law enforcement agencies at bay? Those questions alone could drive an overstuffed episode of Black Mirror.

Thankfully, that’s not enough for Marrs, who doubles down (or is it quintuples?) on the twisty premise. Five of the passengers, it turns out, have secrets of their own. There are secrets aplenty in that clandestine committee, too, and Marrs, via the hacker, reveals all in the book’s strongest chapters. Each member of the jury is given ten minutes to interview a single passenger and make a case why that passenger should survive the day. But at the end of each interview, the hacker reveals some shocking secret about the passenger, and each revelation sends everyone reeling.

The reveals are wild (each could be repackaged as their own separate thriller, really). Sometimes bleakly funny, sometimes tragic, they vault The Passengers over the top and help Marrs get to a place where his critiques about increasing automation, the Internet of Things, and the mob mentality that drives life online are just as memorable as his clever action set-pieces. That success is exemplified by Cadman, an outrageous social media guru who hashtags the jury through the crisis, with variable results.

“Yes!” Cadman interrupted, his face brimming with joy. “We’ve done it!” All heads turned towards him as he high-fived his team members. “We’ve spiked. We have actually made history. This is now the most hashtagged global event since social media began. And we are dead centre in the eye of the storm!” He looked towards each juror in search of someone who shared his enthusiasm. Their faces were deadpan. “Tough crowd.” He shrugged.

Like the low-budget flicks that it’s reminiscent of, The Passengers isn’t meant to be high art. Its faults are apparent—Marrs’ prose is flat, and in some cases, his ideas about the future don’t go big enough. Will we all still be on Facebook and Twitter some ten or fifteen years in the future and using our smartwatches to send messages to our friends? Probably not (the future will undoubtedly be weirder), but Marrs is able to wrap the reader up so thoroughly in the plot that those considerations don’t matter. The lack of a central protagonist also doesn’t hinder the book too much. Each chapter offers a new perspective, with some occasional breaks for fictional social media posts, and the result feels like you’re reading a narrative scattered across Twitter posts and Instagram feeds—in other words, it’s totally natural if you’re Extremely Online.

The Passengers also resembles those old cult movies in its somewhat disappointing climax. After the bravura sequence in which the hacker reveals the passengers’ dark secrets, the rest of the book is a letdown. The hacker’s ultimate motivation is disclosed, sort of, but another string of twists take the punch out of the reveal. It’s one hell of a trip to the end, though, and Marrs handles it like the B-movie masters of old, masking some interesting ideas with cheap thrills and black humor. Thriller fans who like the genre spiked with a little fun and a lot of daring plot work will find The Passengers to be just the sort of ride they’re looking for.

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