Book Review: The Passengers by John Marrs
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Science Fiction, Thriller
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Berkley Books (August 27, 2019)
Length: 352 pages
Was The Passengers by John Marrs an entertaining, thrilling read? Yes. Was it dumbfoundingly absurd and infuriating at times? Also yes. Credit where credit’s due though, I can’t remember the last time I had so much fun with a book while simultaneously screaming obscenities in frustration at it, so there’s that.
At its heart, The Passengers is near-future techno-thriller that has its basis in the discussion surrounding the risks and ethics of programmable artificial intelligence. At the beginning of the story, eight individuals get into their self-driving cars, each trusting their vehicle’s AI to get them to where they need to be. With the exception of two of them—a husband and wife couple—none of them know each other, and all come from different walks of life. But soon, they will find themselves trapped in the same waking nightmare fighting for their lives, for not long after they started their ride, each of them receive a chilling message from a mysterious voice inside their hacked vehicle which is no longer under their control: “Two hours and thirty minutes from now, it is highly likely that you will be dead.”
Meanwhile, as all this is unfolding, a healthcare worker named Libby arrives to her position on the Vehicle Inquest jury, a board that reviews evidence in cases of accidents involving self-driving cars to determine the at-fault party. But as it turns out, they also become the victims of the hacker’s nefarious plot, when it is revealed the horrible role they must play. Libby and her four fellow jurors have become the decision makers to determine who should live and who should die. From hidden cameras, footage from inside the boardroom and from the eight hijacked cars are broadcast live to the world, where members of the public are also invited to chime in and collectively decide the passengers’ fates using hashtags over social media.
All eyes are now on the eight hapless riders trapped inside their vehicles—a septuagenarian TV star philanthropist, a young woman seven months pregnant with her first child, an illegal immigrant awaiting deportation, a construction company contractor and his police officer wife who are the parents of two children, a non-English speaking middle-aged woman making her escape from her abusive husband, a retired and decorated war veteran, and an unemployed homeless man living out of his car. Each of them is given a chance to plead their case to the world, but as the hacker warns, it’s best to be truthful. He knows all their deepest darkest secrets, and the public might not be so sympathetic once he reveals them. But for Libby, the question of whom to save is simple. In a twist of fate, it turns out she has a past connection to one of the passengers, but will anyone else understand her choice?
To make it easier to suspend your disbelief (and trust me, there will be moments where you will need to), it’s probably best to consider The Passengers an exercise in suspense. To create a good thriller, you need the necessary ingredients, including a super evil smart villain who has thought of everything and has all his bases covered from every angle. You also need victims who are put in a situation where they are unpleasantly, irrevocably screwed. Hats off to John Marrs, who has certainly got both these boxes checked off, even if it does mean plot holes, illogical explanations and other farfetched plot mechanisms aplenty. Most of these I can’t go into without spoiling anything, which is unfortunate because some are quite hilarious in the lengths they go to. Suffice to say, Marrs can write a damn good thriller, but his writing relies on the reader to overlook the flimsiness in his character motivations and the story setup.
For one thing, the hacker—who fancies himself as having some sort of moral high ground by being a vigilante avenger punishing the Vehicle Inquest board—is predictably psychotic and gives no reasonable explanation why he thinks causing even more death and chaos is going to get anything done other than to provide him with two and a half hours of sick entertainment (also, no details into his choice of his eight victims or how he managed to orchestrate certain events that should have been impossible to predict or coordinate). It felt like lazy storytelling and characterization, and indeed, almost everyone in this book is an example of more stereotyping or clichés. It can definitely be seen with Libby, whom I wanted to throttle because she was a self-righteous ninny with more hormones than sense, allowing her feelings for a man she knew for all of one evening take over her critical thinking skills and rule her decisions. A shining example of our gender, that one.
But okay, I can’t deny I had fun. A lot of fun, actually. Yes, some of it is over-the-top and ridiculously ham-fisted, but you gotta admit the whole idea is a killer. Despite some of my issues with the story, it’s definitely an interesting premise to ponder, and still a real blast to see things play out. There were moments of pure suspense where I found I could hardly stop reading, so caught up was I in the excitement and intensity. No shortage of shocking surprises here, which came relentlessly at a breakneck pace. As you’ve probably already guessed, none of the passengers are as they seem, so you’ll be getting four or five good twists out of that alone.
Bottom line, The Passengers is a flawed but fun thriller. It might seem like I had a lot of complaints about this one, but the truth is, it’s easier than you think to look past the absurdity, the contrived characters and the plot holes and everything else that didn’t really make sense. After all, the entertainment value is high, which made the read worth it.