I’m terrified of roller coasters. It isn’t the speed or the height or the drops — it’s that I don’t trust them. Whenever I board one, I cannot get past the suspicion that it’s going to break and kill me. I’m someone who doesn’t like being out of control, and so I don’t get a thrill from consigning my body to a contraption of steel and electronics for the sole purpose of having the living daylights scared out of me. I just plain don’t find roller coasters fun.
This book is certainly not going to help my opinion of them. The incident in the first chapter of the book, where a child comes loose of the safety bar thanks to an electronic engineering failure, is literally the stuff of my nightmares. But that exploration of worst case scenarios was, bizarrely, part of what made this book so fascinating for me (even if it will make it even more challenging to board “The Mummy Ride” the next time I’m in Orlando).
Utopia takes place in an imagined theme park in Nevada — and, roller coasters aside, it’s a theme park I’d love to go to. It envisions the sort of immersive experience that many theme parks (such as the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and WDW’s New Fantasyland) are moving towards, integrating total environmental details, committed cast members, and, most critically for the book, new technology in robotics and holograms. Divided into four sections — medieval Camelot, foggily romantic Victorian Gaslight, the cheery seaside Boardwalk, and the futuristic Callisto, with waterpark Atlantis in development — Utopia aims to dissociate its guests from reality for the length of a day.
This is a really fun book to read if you know a lot about theme parks. For all that I hate roller coasters, I love Busch Gardens, Disney World, and Universal Studios, and I have friends who’ve worked at those parks, which means I know more than the average visitor about how they work. Reading Utopia is sort of like playing catch-the-reference: many of its secrets are based on those of Disney World. Child spends a lot of time detailing the parks themselves, and honestly, those were my favourite parts of the book. I like knowing how things like that work, so when he discusses the decompression methods that the park uses to transition guests into each of the park’s worlds, or talks about the cast members moving in the “subterranean” layers, or about the interactive elements of the parks’ environment, I was totally engaged and fascinated.
The conflict of the book comes from a gang of criminals determined to incite mayhem and, by doing so, milk the park for its technological secrets and quite a bit of cash. A network of specialists, largely unknown to each other, works to infiltrate the park’s computer and security systems. Their hacking causes a few “warning signals” at first — initially harmless though annoying shutdowns and malfunctions, and then the first real calamity, the coaster accident in the first chapter of the book. Initially believing it to be a problem with the robotics, the park calls in Andrew Warne, a genius computer engineer who designed the system — he thinks he’s being solicited to help with the Atlantis expansion, but really they want him to take his systems off-line for repairs. He happens to arrive on the same day that the criminals make their presence known, issuing a threat to the park administration that if their demands are met, no one gets hurt — but that if they aren’t met, all of the park’s 65,000 guests are in potential jeopardy. Unfortunately, his presence spooks the gang, who weren’t counting on the park having someone who could possibly root them out — and who make a target not only of Warne, but of his daughter Georgia, whom he brought to the park with him.
There’s a sub-conflict, too, and one which I sort of wish had gotten more attention: the idea that, by focusing so much attention on the roller coasters and thrill rides rather than on the immersive world experience, the park has drifted away from the vision of its creator, who died before he could see his dream fulfilled. That fuels a lot of the inner turmoil for Warne, who was a friend of the creator and who got edged out of the park after his death. Warne also had a relationship with the current park manager, Sarah Boatwright, which influences the dynamics on the personal side of the story.
My biggest complaint about the book is that I felt like it rather pulled its punches. I’ve gotten used to the unflinching horror of P&C’s Pendergast series, and Preston’s stand-alones are pretty gruesome, too. Almost every incident in Utopia, however, turns out to be not quite as bad as Child initially leads the reader to believe. As a result, the stakes don’t feel quite as high as they ought to. Logically, you know that disaster could be imminent — but for most of the book, the heat and the tension just isn’t there. Coming into this straight after re-reading Relic and Reliquary may not have been the best idea, in retrospect, because it caused a dissociation between what I was expecting and what the book ended up giving me.
I also feel like there were some missed opportunities with the technology. Child spends a lot of time talking about how the park uses technology to manipulate emotions as well as to entertain — scents and sounds that create “good vibes”. It led me to expect that part of the villains’ scheme would be to use the emotions of the park guests against them — to change those sensory input systems to trigger fear, panic, violence rather than joy and contentment. By contrast, what the villains actually ended up doing with bombs, weaponry, and electronics just seemed crude. (It’s also really, really easy to figure out who one of the criminals is, if you’re someone who can pick up on the right sort of information — I don’t want to give it away, since it’s meant to be an element of suspense and confusion, but… well, for me, because of a very particular skill set I have, it was almost ridiculously obvious).
Child clearly did his research when it comes to amusement parks, though, and his skill at keeping a plot tripping along is as good as ever. Utopia makes me wonder if he’s often responsible for the victim-viewpoint chapters in the Pendergast novels, since that’s a trope we get here that I don’t recall seeing much in Preston’s solo work. It’s something I enjoy in a book, and a testament to a writer’s skill, to draw a realistic character than a reader will care about in just an introductory page or two.
On the whole, Utopia is an engaging and creative thriller, even if I feel like it missed a few opportunities. I can cheerfully recommend it to anyone who likes P&C’s work, to lovers of thrillers and suspense, and to those fascinated by theme parks and their operations.