Hearts on Fire: False Hearts by Laura Lam

In Laura Lam’s False Hearts, identical twins Tila and Taema are raised as part of a cult hidden away from modern civilisation called Manna’s Hearth. Eventually, accidentally, they discover that there is a different, bigger world outside of the Hearth and leave for the big city lights. In this near future San Francisco, they are surgically separated, given mechanical hearts, biotech and soon learn to live their own, very different, very individual lives.

Taema works for a large tech firm, developing a product that generates energy from the constant fog shrouding the city, the same company that also creates a drug that allows people to live out their fantasies in a dreamscape with no harm coming to anyone involved. Tila works as an escort at a swanky club that allows people to do just that—live out their fantasies, safely. But one night, instead of showing up for a regular weekly dinner, Tila shows up in a panic, covered in blood, insisting to Taema that she hasn’t committed the crime she’s about to be arrested for. It’s been decades since there was a murder in the largely crime free city, with every person’s even faint possibly violent urges are taken care of by Zeal, a drug that ‘enacts fantasies, becoming catharsis for pent-up emotions’. But it really does seem as if Tila has committed a murder, and is dragged away by the police, leaving Taema in shock.

Taema, certain her sister can not be the perpetrator of such a crime, agrees to go under cover for the police department. She takes on Tila’s identity—altering her face a little at a local ‘flesh parlour’ to match what her sister had done to her own face, adding to her memories to make them her sister’s, telling lies galore and doing much that she is uncomfortable with, in order to find out what happened…and to gain back Tila’s freedom. Because this isn’t about just one murder, this is about a large crime ring called the Ratel who are breaking into the fairly safe, clean Zeal business with a harder, more frightening drug called Verve which adds to a person’s aggressive tendencies rather than help dissipate them.

Taema, alongside an undercover San Francisco Police Department employee starts to infiltrate the Ratel, slowly discovering just how much danger lies here, and what it will take for her and Tila to be finally free. Both sister are adept at lucid dreaming, something they were trained to do at the Hearth, and something very few people in the city can manage. With this skill, Taema is able to enter into dreamscapes and explore the word of the Ratel further. Drugs are involved—but then they were even on the Hearth as we slowly discover, via Tila’s version of their origin story.

Zeal is a sort of Soma, developed by Sudice, ‘first as a virtual reality game in which to act out fantasies. They discovered the extra benefit by accident, that if people acted out violent urges, when they came out, vicious tendencies were dampened…Overall, people were calmer, happier. Perfect citizens.’ Sounds perfect, so of course, it can’t be.

FalseHearts-UKThere are indeed echoes of Brave New World at play here, though of course with far more advanced future tech involved. Can the government spy on people’s dreams and fantasies? Does it matter if they do, if those dreams are harmless? It’s a small price to pay for peace and comfort, surely? Except until it isn’t, of course. Lam pushes the escapist drug to it’s extreme, though one frighteningly easy to imagine. Some people end up addicted to Zeal, and the results are as horrifying as they would be for any drug. Zealots, as they are known as, become addicted to the dreamscape fantasies the drug lets them live out, and so stay plugged in, doped up as much as possible, wasting away in meatspace, as they disregard their actual physical needs. Taema finds Mia, the woman who raised the twins once they left the Hearth, at a dingy little Zealot den, and must enter her dream in order to talk with her. What she sees in Mia’s fantasies is horrific, but also tells her that the situation is much, much, more complicated than she could have ever imagined.

Lam’s San Francisco is a dream on the surface. It’s crime free, it runs on green energy, body modifications leave everyone in the best of health both physical and mental, everything is clean, sparse and has a purpose. Of course, it’s also a city run by a giant corporation that produces the psychoactive drug that allowed the city’s citizens to expunge their violent urges in a safe (albeit intangible) space.

Future San Francisco seems an incredibly easy city to live in—safe, sanitary, convenient. Food can be ‘replicated’ in minutes, alcohol is synthesised to never cause any hangovers, body modifications and muscle implants make sure no one is every unhealthy and direct to brain downloads make information easy to access and gain. But as with any ‘utopia’ , there is a darker side to it all. The addicts, the underbelly of drug trafficking, the frozen criminals who sometimes just accidentally die because of power failures—none of it is unbelievable in the world we live in now, but shocking to the citizens of this ‘perfect’ San Francisco.

The story is told in alternating chapters and points of view of both Taema and Tila. Taema, in her new identity as her sister and her work undercover, and Tila in her prison cell, writing the story of the twins’ lives on Manna’s Hearth. Taema, the more introspective, safe twin, is forced to come out of her comfort zone and take on Tila’s more open, vivacious mantle, albeit one that appears to have been hiding some dark secrets. Tila, in the meanwhile, draws herself in, doesn’t give away much to the police officers questioning her and chooses to write quietly about their shared past instead. It’s a nice little reversal of roles, the twins acting as foils for each other but with shifting, amorphous boundaries.

False Hearts does exactly what it says on the tin—it’s a near-future crime thriller featuring psychoactive drugs, dreamscapes, corruption, futurist technology and power struggles. It’s also about two young women who are bound by love just as tightly, as strongly as they were once by shared flesh. This is the story of them re-discovering each other, and in doing so, understanding more about themselves too.

It’s a simply, evocatively written narrative that ticks along at a steady pace with well placed reveals along the way to avoid any lull or boredom. If it has one fault, it may be just that little bit too much information, just that tiny bit of extra used to worldbuild—something that may not be amiss in a YA novel, which this isn’t being marketed as. Regardless, this isn’t much of a fault but more of a your mileage may vary situation, because many readers will appreciate it.

False Hearts is available from Tor Books and Tor Books UK.
Read an excerpt from the novel here on Tor.com

Mahvesh loves dystopian fiction & appropriately lives in Karachi, Pakistan. She writes about stories & interviews writers the Tor.com podcast Midnight in Karachi when not wasting much too much time on Twitter.


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