Facts: The novel Golden State was published in January 2019 by Mulholland Books. It is 336 pages in length. Its dimensions are 6.5 x 1.2 x 9.6 inches. Speculations: After reading Golden State, Ben H. Winters’ provocative dystopian police procedural set in a world where lying is a criminal offense, one might become wary of departing from established, verifiable truths or fear making exaggerated assertions.
Golden State goes off-kilter right from the opening sentence: “This is a novel. All of the words in it are true.” Instantly we know that the clocks are striking 13 and that we’re in an Orwellian-adjacent world in a sunny, California-type setting.
Golden State unfolds as a kind of 1984/Fahrenheit 451 mashup, set in the eponymously named place, a just-the-facts, double-stamped, triple-checked world where every meeting and conversation is recorded and stored—the duty of every citizen starting at age 17. Telling a lie is a serious offense punished with prison time (or worse, exile) as a high crime against the “Objectively So.”
Intent is taken into account. Joking hyperbole and white lies are shrugged off, exaggerated advertising claims relegated to the “court of small infelicities,” while outright bald-faced lies are punished forcefully. Dishonesty is not so much a moral sin as a crime against reality, a treason of sorts.
A Dangerous State of Mind
The first scene unfolds with feverish dream logic. Laszlo Ratesic’s breakfast of “chicken and waffles” (an enduring feature of all versions of Los Angeles) is interrupted by an overwhelming sense of “dishonesty in the atmosphere.”
Like the good Speculator Service cop he is, Laszlo puts down his fork and sniffs out the lie among the other patrons, mentally inspecting even the waitress’s words to make sure she is truly enthusiastic about the three-egg omelet with jalapeno, before honing in on a conversation about the illicit use of drugs. But Laszlo is more concerned with the “forceful and purposeful distortion of the truth” committed by a teenager lying to shield his brother.
Laszlo is a 19-year veteran of the Speculative Service, blessed with an innate sensory gift that allows him to sniff out dishonesty, “solely empowered, and uniquely qualified, to detect and destroy the stuff of lies.” To risk a forbidden metaphor, he lives in the shadow of his late brother, Charlie, who was even more talented. Laszlo fears he can’t live up to Charlie’s memory—or what Laszlo thinks it is.
Returning to the station, Laszlo is abruptly paired with an eager young partner, Aysa Paige, and the new team is summoned to a seemingly humdrum case of a construction worker accidentally falling off a roof. Or was it an accident?
Getting deeper into the death investigation, the team digs up disturbing anomalies, to the point they must “speculate,” or go beyond known reality, a dangerous state of mind reserved only for Speculators.
For in the timeless, time-stamped world of Golden State, people don’t imagine. There are no novels, no Netflix, no poetry. Dreams are suppressed with drugs. People get home from work and kick back with selected clips from the ubiquitous real-life video streams, like “Old Men Walking Dogs.” Imagination—a kind of lie—doesn’t even have to be officially outlawed when such fancies are never given root.
Old churches still stand, or rather, buildings of “heavy gray stone with elaborate stained-glass windows.” People greet each other by exchanging nuggets of truth, including the “truth” that neatly sums up the story’s dark underside: “The past is a dangerous country.” There’s a sense that things are going well, and will continue to, so long as the motivated citizenry keep strengthening their shared and confirmed reality, day after day, laying down truth upon truth, fact upon fact.
But things start to unravel when Laszlo finds an actual fictional novel in the dead man’s possession, a forbidden relic from that blacked-out past. He begins to ponder if a world with only one kind of truth in it is the biggest lie of all.
Laszlo’s Subversive World-Building
Winters packs in detective-story tropes (doughnut-loving cops, slow-walking police bureaucracy, the semi-retired old-timer with secret knowledge) only to subvert them. The character of Laszlo, a sour soul redeemed by self-effacement, is particularly well-rounded. His eager young partner Aysa is less successfully drawn.
Winters has a knack for world-building, subliminally conjuring up an alternative Los Angeles from Laszlo’s chicken-and-waffles breakfast. An old sign on a high hill spells out, in nine huge letters, a word utterly unfamiliar to the populace; junk-food fan Laszlo eternally fails to catch a hot dog truck. One of those details is background color, the other a plot point, and both help ground his Golden State into a simulacrum of reality.
Much as I admired Golden State, I cannot tell a lie: it has some problems. The plot gets shaky around the three-quarter mark. The central mystery is disappointingly fuzzy. Some developments may not bear close scrutiny, and the evildoing is kept too far in the background, the machinations indistinct. Perhaps the less one reads about the origins of the novel, the better (hint: It involves Donald Trump).
But unlike some recent speculative fiction with a message, the characters aren’t stand-ins for real-life conservative villains. Any ideological lecture contained within sailed blessedly over this reader’s head. It also wraps up nicely, opening at the end into another dimension, of sorts.
Still, many avenues of the Golden State are left unexplored. At the risk of speculation, the book could mark the launch of another enthralling series, like one of Winters’ other genre combos, his award-winning trilogy The Last Policeman. As it is, Golden State succeeds as a police procedural, a conspiracy thriller, and a philosophical statement on the attainability of absolute truth.
And that’s no lie.