Part SF Thriller, Part Bildungsroman: The Million by Karl Schroeder

The Million is the latest work by acclaimed science fiction author Karl Schroeder. It’s related in setting to his 2014 novel Lockstep: the lockstep of that title plays a significant role in The Million.

One million people live on Earth, wealthy custodians of its culture, heritage, architecture and lands. They are the Million, their numbers restricted by treaty, their lifestyles lavish. They want for nothing—but they’re custodians for the ten billion humans who live in the lockstep, who sleep in suspended animation beneath Earth’s cities, waking for a month every thirty years in order to participate in an interstellar society where no faster than light transport or communication exists.

Gavin Penn-of-Chaffee is an illegal child, an orphan from the lockstep raised in secret among the Million. The only people who know of his existence are his adoptive father and his adoptive brother Bernie. Bernie has difficulties interacting with people, and Gavin tries to protect and support him as best he can—but when Gavin isn’t allowed to reveal his existence to other people, that support is limited.

When their home is attacked, their father murdered, and Bernie framed for it, Gavin’s only chance of finding justice is to disguise himself as Neal Makhav—a dead young man—and hope to show up to Bernie’s trial. But Neal Makhav is expected at the School of Auditors, the police and investigative force dedicated to maintaining the treaty between the Million and the Lockstep, and making sure that visitors—like Gavin—cannot infiltrate the Million. At least one member of the Million knows what lies beneath Gavin’s masquerade, and is blackmailing him into performing tasks for him, and the School assigns Gavin, like all of its students, a mysterious voiceless bot that follows his every move and will be part of the decision on whether he passes or fails. In the heart of an organisation whose very purpose is dedicated to unmasking people like him, Gavin feels the walls closing in.

In the School of Auditors, Gavin makes the acquaintance of fellow trainee Elana Devries, from one of the most powerful families of the Million, with whom he develops a relationship that’s part rivalry, part alliance, part friendship. Elana’s interest in him extends to investigating his secrets, and when a conspiracy within the auditors ensnares Gavin to keep him out of the way until Bernie’s trial, that makes her a target, too.

It turns out that the conspiracy within the auditors may threaten everything the Million believe is true about how well the treaty between them and the lockstep is maintained. And how much it is, in fact, honoured. Gavin and Elana have to make sacrifices and confront hard truths, and The Million ends on a note that definitely allows for sequels.

I’d like for there to be sequels. The Million is a tightly-plotted gem of a novella, part thriller and part coming-of-age. It’s told from both Gavin and Elana’s points of view, and they both have distinct, appealing voices. They’re compelling characters—Gavin as an outsider by upbringing, Elana very confident in her position but knowing that she’s overshadowed by her more flamboyant sister—and in many ways, fascinating ones. And although the other characters don’t have as much time on the page, they come across as distinct, interesting individuals—even the ones who are very definitely assholes.

And The Million’s worldbuilding adds another layer of interest. Two societies, living (or not) side by side, who only interact once every three decades. There’s a lot of potential for intrigue here.

I really enjoyed The Million. It’s fast, fun, occasionally thought-provoking, and deeply entertaining. More, please.

The Million is available from Publishing.

Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, was published in 2017 by Aqueduct Press. It was a finalist for the 2018 Locus Awards and is nominated for a Hugo Award in Best Related Work. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council, the Transgender Equality Network Ireland, and the Abortion Rights Campaign.


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