Tag is an interesting, exciting, and altogether refreshing take on the near-future, Utopian sci-fi thriller. Simon does a wonderful job of exploring both the technology and social constructs that allow for the illusion of a utopia, but also demonstrates a deep understanding of the humanity that so often undermines the Utopian ideal.
The first thing that struck me about the novel was its geographical and cultural focus. This is a story that’s set entirely in Southeast Asia and Australia, with only passing references to places like North America and Europe that usually dominate the genre. There isn’t a significant amount of contemporary culture to be explored, due to the nature of our Utopian future, but there is distinctly ‘foreign’ flavour to people and places that I found very attractive.
As for the technology, Simon smartly avoids the temptation to automate the world. The technological advances he introduces are quite wondrous to behold, but they’re also very subtle, being natural extensions of the technology of today. The Devstick is a perfect example, a pocket-sized device that finally accomplishes what every manufacturer is aiming for – the complete integration of all our mobile devices. Living arrangements are a little more advanced, and transportation has certainly changed (trips to the moon are as accessible as a flight across the country), but they’re a clear evolution of our adaptation to environmental restrictions, rather than a frivolous attempt to wow us with technology.
To return to the theme of utopia for a moment, Simon’s future requires a few leaps of faith (I’m not sure, as a race, we could ever agree to some of the compromises he places ahead of us), but it’s an attractive place to live. Governed as a homogeneous whole by the United Nations, the world has become a socialist (almost communist) society, free of the racial, geographic, and religious conflicts that have plagued the past. Unfortunately, any utopia is only as strong as its worst member, and there are forces looking to take advantage of our global complacency.
The ‘tag’ of the title is hardly a new idea – surgically imprinting humanity with a chip that broadcasts our identities, and allows for government oversight – but the way in which it is presented, and the ease with which the world is sold on the concept, is very disturbing. The secret flaw behind the tag is even more frightening, but I don’t want to give away too much of the plot. Suffice to say, this is a book that works well as both a science fiction adventure and a political thriller, a combination that isn’t as easy to manipulate as you might suspect. The characters are very well-rounded and likable, so much so that I spent much of the book wondering if the villain was really the villain we’d been led to expect, and whether the revolutionary hero didn’t, in fact, have ulterior motives. Simon engages us, and ties us to the characters, but also distances us enough from the action to keep us guessing.
Finally, although it’s not a significant aspect of the novel, I must say I thoroughly appreciated the portrayal of sexuality. Sexuality has been stripped of its taboos, leading to a society that may be a little too open and promiscuous for some, but which is very accommodating. One of the more significant supporting characters is a transgendered woman who lives and loves as if she were never anything but female, never having to worry about being discriminated against or beaten for her gender. In fact, the fact that she's transsexual is dealt with so casually, you could literally blink and miss it. Similarly, one of the primary characters is involved in a long-term lesbian relationship that isn't presented as being any different from any of the other character’s straight relationships. There is an S&M aspect to the relationship that had me concerned, but there's a justification for it, and a development of the character's motivations that ultimately redeems it.
Definitely an enjoyable read, and one that I would highly recommend.