What would the world look like if a completely foolproof and almost undetectable lie detector existed? How would the inability to get away with lying about anything, no matter how insignificant or life-changing, affect politics? Or business? Or relationships? These are the questions Will McIntosh tackles in his new YA novel The Future Will Be BS Free.
A few decades from now, the U.S. is recovering from the recent Sino-Russian war, in which major metropolitan areas were bombed to ruins and the West Coast was occupied by foreign aggressors. The country is now controlled by President Vitnik, an authoritarian demagogue who’s not averse to enriching herself by selling ubiquitous (and tax-free) Vitnik-branded products. Income inequality has skyrocketed, law enforcement is corrupt, and life for the average citizen is nightmarishly close to something you’d find in a post-apocalyptic novel.
As The Future Will Be BS Free gets started, a group of gifted teenagers is close to finishing a prototype of a foolproof lie detector. There’s a vaguely scientific-sounding explanation for the technology behind it, which involves MRI machines scanning for activity in the anterior cingulate cortex—the part of the human brain that supposedly handles lying—but it probably would have made just as much sense to power the device with Handwavium and call it day. The technology isn’t the point.
Its effects, on the other hand, very much are the point, as the young inventors find out soon after they get their lie detector to work. They quickly realize, even during the first test run, that maintaining friendships is a challenge when every lie, big or small, can immediately be exposed. Soon after, they also learn that the Powers That Be might not be crazy about the concept either…
Will McIntosh has written a slew of dark, emotionally wrenching and often dystopian novels for adults, most of which I’ve reviewed for this site in the past, but two out of his three most recent novels have been geared towards young adult readers. While I always appreciate authors who flex their writerly muscles by exploring different genres, in this case I feel that neither Burning Midnight (2016) nor The Future Will Be BS Free really live up to the potential we’ve seen in McIntosh’s “adult” novels like Soft Apocalypse, Defenders, and especially Love Minus Eighty.
Part of the problem with The Future Will Be BS Free is that it deals with an incredibly complex concept in a somewhat limited, even simplistic way. James Halperin’s The Truth Machine (1996) wasn’t a great novel at all, but it dealt with the idea of a foolproof lie detector and its applications and effects in a much more thorough way. The Future Will Be BS Free takes a different tack, looking less at the sociological effects of the technology and more at the way it immediately impacts the main characters’ lives. That’s not surprising, given that this is a very different novel, but it’s hard not to be at least a little disappointed that the novel ends before it can extrapolate some more of this technology’s eventual impact on society.
Instead, The Future Will Be BS Free focuses more on the characters and the chaos that envelops them almost immediately after completing their invention. Narrator Sam Gregorious is a somewhat bland (and occasionally unlikeable) main character, but the others form a fascinating and diverse group, including the team’s visionary Theo, who has cerebral palsy, and a young man named Boob (really) who struggles with cripplingly low self esteem. Rounding out the team are Sam’s unrequited crush Molly and their friends Rebe and Basquiat. Reading about this group’s friendly and not-so-friendly bickering sessions (not to mention romantic entanglements and occasional minor rivalries) is probably the best part of the novel. The story also features several disabled war veterans, whose no-nonsense attitudes provide a refreshing contrast to the teenagers’ occasional awkwardness.
On a different note, this is probably Will McIntosh’s most political novel to date. Some of the parallels to current events and political figures would not be out of place in, say, a Cory Doctorow novel. As a matter of fact, you could draw a line straight from Little Brother (Doctorow’s YA novel for the Bush era) to its sequel Homeland (the Obama years) to McIntosh’s The Future Will Be BS Free, with its references to fake news and “deepfake” videos—not to mention the obvious parallels between President Vitnik and, well, I don’t have to spell it out, right? Suffice it to say that, if you prefer your science fiction free of politics, this novel should probably not be your first choice.
In the end, The Future Will Be BS Free was a mixed bag for me. For every positive, there’s a “but.” The story’s breakneck pace is perfect for a YA novel, but some plot elements are so improbable they’re borderline silly. (I’m being intentionally vague here to avoid spoilers.) The novel throws some genuine surprise developments at the reader, but it’s at times also painfully predictable. The foolproof lie detector is a neat concept, but its impact doesn’t get fully developed.
All of this makes The Future Will Be BS Free, while mostly enjoyable, a bit of a disappointment compared to Will McIntosh’s usually stellar output. Still, even a minor McIntosh work is worth checking out, especially for—but by no means limited to—younger, politically conscious readers.
The Future Will Be BS Free is available July 24th from Delacorte Press.
Stefan Raets lives in San Diego.