Book review: More Than This by Patrick Ness

I need to begin this review with a warning that it contains spoilers for most of the book. Normally I hate to do this, but to talk about the parts that bugged me, I have to “go there” and cover the major plot points. So this is your only warning to skip this review if you want to go into this book and be surprised.

With that out of the way, last week, hubby and I went to meet a friend downtown, and he said he needed a travel book. So I suggested we go to the local Feltrinelli, which has a rather huge selection of books in English. While hunting for a new book, I saw More Than This, and even before I saw the title or the author, I read a blurb from John Green: “Just read it.” I do like John Green’s books, and I thought maybe he wouldn’t steer me wrong. So I bought the book, and I started reading while walking behind my husband and his friend. I spent the entire trip downtown reading, and when I got home, I dropped the other books I was reading for “just one more chapter.”

The first hundred and forty pages really sucked me into this story because after the main character Seth Wearing drowns, it seems like he somehow wakes up in hell. Each time he sleeps, he has flashbacks to his old life, and all of the characters in these flashbacks are interesting and helped keep my attention.

But somewhere around page 150 comes the introduction of Regine and Tomasz, who reveal that this is not hell, but the real world, and everyone else in inside a virtual reality simulation. So this is the YA Matrix, but with less plausible explanations for everything.

Don’t get me wrong. The characters are still just as good after the big reveal. I love the back story for Seth, Regine, and Tomasz. The dialogue is fantastic and strikes just the right balance of witty and serious to keep me happy. Well except for Tomasz, “Who is talking like Polish stereotype, yes?” I might be biased on this point because my husband learned English the same Way Tomasz supposedly did, and while my hubby speaks perfect English, Tomasz, a supposed prodigal genius, talks in such a stilted way that it bugs the hell out of me.

But the world building is all…God, it’s so stupid. The world was ending, so the governments put everyone in virtual reality by force. No one is left outside, and despite all these people needing constant care, there’s only one robot caretaker for the entire population of a city? Seth somehow gets all his memories back, and in doing so, he’s able to interface with Tomasz and Regine just by touching their nodes. The explanation for these few characters being outside is that they injured their heads in a very specific way inside the system, which somehow broke the physical node in the real world despite their heads being laid on cushions. The sole caretaker then runs around hunting them down even though they’re dead inside the system for all intents and purposes, supposedly so it can kill them inside the system. Why? Hell if I know, because even if it doesn’t make sense, there’s no logic or reasoning to any of this. And even though they got kicked out of the system due to a busted data node, the devices still function as part of the plot device to tell the other characters’ histories.

If none of this makes sense in brief, don’t worry; it doesn’t make sense in the long version either. This whole book is like someone watched The Matrix and went “Ooh, I can do that story better.” But they couldn’t, and the result fills me with deeply conflicting emotions. As I said, the characters and dialogue are great, and I love that Seth is a gay protagonist without his sexuality being the focus of the story. But the actual story surrounding him and his new friends frustrates me for how dumb it is. Stuff just happens because it’s convenient and needs to happen to force the plot along. Seth even thinks this several times, but instead of making the story feel smart or meta, it comes across as lazy and poorly thought out.

All kinds of simple questions make this thing fall apart. If the system is meant to protect humanity, why isn’t there some kind of software override in the event of murders and abuse? How can the entire world be inside the system with no one left outside to maintain the systems, the power grid, or monitor the environment? How is it possible to maintain a worldwide network this large without someone on the outside to keep up repairs? Why is the sole robotic caretaker of the facility constantly patrolling for a few loose stragglers when they’re supposed to be cleaning up after humans and their offspring? How does one person interface with another and live their memories with no hardware built for such a purpose?

For all these questions I have, the story does ask them, but then shrugs, says, “I dunno,” and moves on. This is frustrating precisely because the character development is so, so good and I want to feel invested in the story. But the world building is extremely lazy, and once the big twist is revealed, my interest plummeted. I thought maybe I’d keep reading and there might be a clever twist that improves my impression, but that moment never came. If anything, the ending left me feeling even more frustrated because the writer paints Seth into a seemingly impossible corner and then just backs off because reasons. No, those reasons aren’t given, and that sucks.

I’m giving More Than This 3 stars. The characters and dialogue in a more well-crafted setting would have earned a 5, but the crappy world building would have got a 2. So I’ll split the difference and call it done. I can’t say this is the last Patrick Ness story I’ll ever read, because clearly, he’s got some writing skills. But I’ll be wary of any future sci-fi stories from him.