Incarceron is a computerized prison, a closed system which has been self-sustaining for generations. People are born there and die there, and occasionally someone new is imprisoned in it, but always with their memories wiped first. “Outside” is a legend, and only one man (maybe) has ever escaped. It’s a total hellhole where any scrap of human decency is instantly rewarded by death, doom, and despair.

Finn, a memory-wiped prisoner with epilepsy and visions, is exceptional in that he has occasional and vague pangs of conscience, but his (mostly self-interested) attempt to rescue a woman who has a mysterious item he wants ends in her horrible death. But the mysterious key reveals a connection between him and… Outside!

Meanwhile, Outside, Claudia is the daughter of the Warden of Incarceron. For reasons that I’m certain wouldn’t make any more sense if they were explained in more detail, their society is forced to enact a fake version of some vague European historical period, maybe Regency. Progress is banned. Literally. That’s a direct quote: “Progress is banned." Everyone is scheming against everyone. Claudia was supposed to marry nice prince Giles, but he met with a mysterious fate. (The instant this was mentioned, I knew where Giles really was, and what name he was going by now.) Then Claudia steals a mysterious key from her father’s study, letting her communicate with Finn.

There are interesting elements in the premise – Incarceron is a depressed AI – but the overall set-up is very familiar if you read sf.

Still, very little is new under the sun. My bigger problem with the book was the heavy-handed grimness and near-total lack of likable characters. There are three types of characters:

1. Evil.

2. Eeeeeeeeevil.

3. Not evil by choice, but will stab their best friend in the back for a mouthful of stale bread.

No one has hobbies or any characteristics which don’t relate to the plot. This makes even the characters who aren’t utterly horrible, like Claudia, her tutor, and the dog-girl, feel two-dimensional.

The plot progresses by means of betrayals. This gets very predictable, as all you need to know to figure out what will happen next is if anyone is trusting anyone, even briefly and halfheartedly. If so, that person will betray them.

There’s an interesting, if implausible twist regarding the nature of Incarceron toward the end, followed by a big “to be continued!” But by the end of this book, I didn’t want to spend any more time in either of the depressing settings nor with any of the repellent characters.

Incarceron (Incarceron, Book 1)
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