The Fate of the Furious doesn’t really get crazy until the movie’s villain, played by Charlize Theron, tells her hacker minions to “make it rain.” A few obedient keystrokes later and empty cars are flinging themselves from a high-rise parking garage onto the streets of Manhattan. The carnage blocks the path of the Russian minister of defense’s limousine, allowing Vin Diesel to pop by with a power saw and steal a briefcase full of nuclear codes.
Like pretty much everything in the Fast/Furious franchise, this scenario is the result of a kernel of truth exploding into an inverted corn endosperm of hard-to-believe size and impossible-to-resist butteriness. Given the series’ foundational belief in the car as an extension of the person, it’s surprising that it hasn’t done more with car hacking. But if I had to guess what the producers will gin up for The Fine and the Furious (the only title I will accept for the now-filming ninth installment), it’d be a passel of self-driving cars. Because if hacking regular, empty cars is fun, a villain who takes control of vehicles full of passengers and devoid of conventional controls can only heighten the spectacle and fear that comes with a loss of control.
It wouldn’t be breaking fresh ground. Despite its ongoing lack of IRL existence, autonomous driving has served as the premise or backdrop for a range of cultural works, including an especially murdery episode of Black Mirror and a short story by T. C. Boyle that is both poignant and a reminder that no matter what the invention, it will result in the demise of a few dumb teenagers. The latest of these is The Passengers from John Marrs, a British author specializing in technothrillers best enjoyed on a beach or in an airplane. In this, his sixth novel, an all-powerful hacker traps eight people in self-driving cars, sets them on a collision course, and demands a jury vote to select one of them to survive.
The Passengers takes place 10 years or so in the future, not long after fully self-driving vehicles have become ubiquitous and the British government moves to phase out the barbaric, deadly practice of human driving. It follows the stories of five of those passengers (the other three are soon blown up) as well as that of Libby Dixon, a young everywoman who is serving her week on the ultra-secretive Vehicle Inquest Jury. This panel—made up of the head of the Ministry for Transport, representatives of the General Medical Council and Legal Services Board, a “Religious Pluralist” representing all faiths, and a rotating member of the public—is charged with reviewing crashes in which an autonomous vehicle kills someone and determining whether the vehicle or the victim is to blame. Except, as Dixon learns, they don’t like the v-word: “There are no victims here unless we judge they have been unlawfully killed,” says the transportation chief, who slides from jerk to villain as the plot moves along.
And the plot does move. In the 300-plus pages between the hacker telling each trapped passenger they’re likely to die in a few hours and the time of impact, Marrs fills in each hostage’s soap-operatic backstory, complete with a heavily foreshadowed twist revealing there’s more to them than they’d like their jurors to know. It all builds to the largest reveal of all, that the way the cars handle the ethical “trolley problem” of whom to kill when a crash is inevitable doesn’t quite match what the government has told its people.
The Passengers is fun and compelling; I read the final pages while walking down the street, unwilling to wait until I got home. Marrs’ pacing does plenty to make up for his inelegant style, with occasional clunkers like “The person you’ve spent months searching for is trapped inside a driverless car” (emphasis his) and “Libby Dixon didn’t need to check her reflection in the bathroom mirror to know she was still scowling.” The same goes for some sense-stretching plot points. One part of the Hacker’s scheme hinges on a perfectly timed aneurysm. The 78-year-old hostage has an apparently endless supply of brandy in her car. And the most deadly and unexpected moment of the book is never explained or justified, even when the big baddie delivers his expository speech. The foreshadowing swings between heavy-handed and inadequate, and the reasoning behind what is, predictably, a scheme for revenge doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
For me, someone who’s tracking how self-driving cars will shape not revenge plots but the quotidian world, the best bits of the novel come in passing, where Marrs does his world-building. He flicks at a steady stream of believable details (even if such a total switchover is more like 50 years away than 10). Insurance costs and tax breaks push people into robotic cars. Aging cars stop accepting software updates, forcing their owners to buy new vehicles. Dockless shared bikes meant for the poor end up on at the bottom of the river.
For all that realism, though, Marrs pins his plot on a government eager to do some social engineering. It’s a satisfying force of evil, storytelling-wise, but ignores the crucial and expanding role corporations have over our lives. The Googles and Ubers and Amazons of the world, not nation-states, will determine how the cars of the future behave, and their transgressions are more likely to be manipulative than murderous, meant to milk us for data and dollars. Novelizing such banal evil takes a lighter touch than Marrs brings to The Passengers. The most thrilling horror stories are those whose truth is inescapable.
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