It is a well-known fact–well, well-known by me at least–that I am not a big fan of the phrase “speculative fiction.” What fiction, after all, does not speculate? Hell, what writing does not speculate? I have always viewed the phrase with distrust, at best a means to group somewhat disparate groups like sci fi, fantasy and horror together–which the literary universe has long set out to do–and at worst an effort at rescuing “worthy” pieces of fiction from the “classless” genres of sci fi, fantasy and horror.
However, there are times when even I must admit defeat. The novel “Kismet” seems to take place in a not-too-distant future or a universe only slightly removed from our own, and one of its central plot drivers is a piece of technology that impacts individual human life, but one might have a hard time describing it as sci fi.
“Kismet” tells the tale of Anna, a twenty-something about to be a thirty-something with a pleasant job in journalism and a perfectly supportive live-in boyfriend, but she worries she’s missing out. She tries an app called Kismet, which offers to match users with an ideal partner after digesting one’s entire digital existence. There she finds potential partners, including Geoff, a dashing older man who might open her up to more–or at least help her work out some daddy issues.
“Kismet’s” writer Luke Tredget is described as a “writer and aid worker” on his Twitter page, so perhaps that’s why the characters his novel seem to often be writers and aid workers. We’ve all got to find meaning somehow, I suppose. Accordingly, it might be a little too convenient that I find Anna relatable. She’s within my age group and she works in the industry I do, so a lot of her fears and observations sound familiar.
That said, Tredget’s characters as a whole are distinct and well-rounded. As the book goes on, no character–no matter how minor–is really too sinful or too saintly. This is quite true of Anna, whose dips into doubt and selfishness make her a delightfully, perhaps even refreshingly, human protagonist.
The prose is clever and easy to read, although it does remain in the present tense the entire time. This increasingly popular practice can be acceptable in some short forms, but it can be distracting in a novel–why are we doing it? Who is relating this story and who is their audience? Is it all happening RIGHT NOW? Although those nagging distractions remain throughout the book, they are usually in the background, and the novel never feels its 400 pages.
A bigger discomfort–one that stands outside of the narrative and enjoyability of the book–is whether it can be described as sci fi. Perhaps not–not because its future only takes place in the not-too-distant future or because its tech is not-so-different–but because the novel does not spend a lot of time philosophizing.
Sci fi, especially soft sci fi, often delves into lengthy speeches dissecting its themes, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing that “Kismet” stays largely silent. Philosophizing can be handled very well, but it can also bog down a book. One way or the other, “Kismet” never feels weighty, and it retains its intelligence throughout.
The book certainly offers readers a lot to think about, including the immediacy and intangibility of personal relationships in the modern era, the ubiquity of social media, and finding purpose while aging in an increasingly fast-paced society. There’s even a twist–of course there’s a twist–which comes about for the novel’s climax that is well handled, tying into the themes of the novel and allowing the narrative to state one of the book’s big ideas in a wholly organic way.
However, don’t expect a startling thrill ride. “Kismet” is slightly sci fi and occasionally comedic, but it’s a character study. Despite its themes, we’re here to people watch rather than muse. Perhaps this is really literary fiction, a genre that is, in its own way, as descriptive and shapeless as the moniker “speculative fiction.”