Barry Jonsberg, Catch Me If I Fall, Allen & Unwin, November 2020, 258 pp, RRP $19.99 (pbk), ISBN 9781760877613
Barry Jonsberg is a prolific author of children’s, pre-teen and teenage fiction, perhaps best known for his charming 2013 best-seller and CBCA prize-winning novel, My Life as an Alphabet. His latest book also charms and thrills its readers, while offering an alternative-world puzzle linked to the possibilities of artificial intelligence.
Ash and Aiden Delatour are twelve-year-old identical twins — though paradoxically they are brother and sister. They live some decades into the future, at a time when the earth’s environment has become even more degraded, and its political and social divisions even more distinct and dangerous. Barry Jonsberg’s special talent as a writer is to create child-characters who are smart, who care for each other, and whom we come to care about too. Adults are another matter, for though they are real, and wield power, and say they love their children, they remain on the edges of the story we are reading and caring about.
The novel raises questions for the reader, such as: what is the true source of Aiden’s utter devotion to Ash? How can Ash learn to appreciate Aiden without taking his love for granted? What kind of a world really exists outside the twins’ neighbourhood, which is patrolled and protected by private security guards? What does it mean when their super-clever mother presents them with a new pet that is in fact a machine programmed to act and react and learn in all the ways a dog does?
This story has its origins deep in the ongoing ethical dilemmas attached to Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, Frankenstein, while also advancing along the cutting edge of possible contemporary developments in artificial intelligence. The novel isn’t at all technical though, for it manages to bring us into its world, challenge us with our own reactions, and make us turn back to our own life with an altered vision. The pace of the novel is superb, and for long stretches it’s compelling reading.
Though the place we arrive at by the end is clever and unexpected, what mostly reverberates is the importance of being open to what it might mean to be human. Will we always be able to distinguish ourselves from ‘smart’ machines? — and once machines become almost infinitely smart, whose interests will they serve? I am hoping that Jonsberg might have a sequel in him as he pushes out into the fates of these characters and the consequences of the questions the novel raises. Highly recommended for readers from ten to fifteen — and beyond.
Reviewed by Kevin Brophy