Something is rotten in the state of the NutriStart Skills Academy
With the discovery of a human skull on the playing fields, children displaying symptoms of an unfamiliar, grisly virus and a catastrophic malfunction in the site’s security system, the NSA is about to experience a week that no amount of rebranding can conceal. As the school descends into chaos, teacher Tom Rosen goes looking for answers – but when the real, the unreal and the surreal are indistinguishable, the truth can be difficult to recognise.
One pupil, Gabriel Backer, may hold the key to saving the school from destroying itself and its students, except he has already been expelled. Not only that – he has disappeared down the rabbit-hole of “Alpha Omega” – the world’s largest VR role-playing game, filled with violent delights and unbridled debauchery. But the game quickly sours. Gabriel will need to confront the real world he’s been so desperate to escape if he ever wants to leave…
Title: Alpha Omega | Author: Nicholas Bowling | Publisher: Titan Books | Pub. Date: 21st July 2020 | Pages: 416 | ISBN: 9781789093810 | Genre: Science Fiction | Language: English | Starred Review: Yes | Source: Publisher
Alpha Omega Review
This is one of those books I kept going back on forth on. Even as I start writing this review I can’t decide if it’s a “potentially good book spoiled by….”-style review or a “so good you can forgive…” one. ‘Alpha Omega’ does lots of things really well. It has likeable characters, is very funny at times, and mixes convincing near future science fiction with absolutely biting satire on the direction modern Britain is heading in. What it doesn’t do so well is tell a story.
The books centres on a school, the NutriStart Skills Academy, a secondary school in an England that feels only a few years away. It’s a world where everything is privatised and run by rival corporations and where most of the population is addicted to Alpha Omega, an online virtual world that mixes video gaming and social media. It’s today on steroids and that mix of Britishness, satire and sci fi makes comparisons with ‘Black Mirror’ both obvious and valid. It also reminded me a lot of the original ‘Max Headroom’ TV play from 1985.
The story follows some of the pupils and teachers at the school, the kicking off point being the discovery of ancient bones in the school grounds during the installation of a new security system. Nicholas Bowling uses this set up to cast his eye on a broad and diverse range of topical concerns. The book considers the role of Huawei in the 5G network, the dismantling of the NHS, the challenges to education posed by the academy system, the rise of amateur content creators (and pornographers) and the increasingly central role of new forms of media in our daily lives.
The satire element of the book is quite brilliantly handled. It’s funny and engaging and made me reflect on things without ever feeling heavy handed. The characters are also very well done. Bowling is a teacher by trade and his depiction of both students and educators is convincing. There isn’t a central protagonist, but rather an ensemble cast who work together to try and survive the increasingly bizarre events unfolding around them. Despite that weirdness the people all felt real and that makes the book all the more effective.
As I noted at the start it’s not all good though. I found the story gripping at first, but as time went on (and particularly in the final third) there was so much going on I got a bit lost. The ending also fell a bit flat for me and I finished the book thinking that one more rewrite might have been in order.
Review written, I think I’ve landed on “so good you can forgive…” The book does a lot very, very well, and that’s enough to overcome its problems, significant as they are.
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