The Passengers

Baby, You Can Drive My Car

Here’s a thriller with some sci-fi elements that takes place in the very near future in contemporary England (in a contemporary culture much influenced by social media and hashtags). Self-driving cars run by AI fill the streets, and this novel by the bestselling author John Marrs creates a wild scenario. What happens if eight cars are hacked and taken over? What happens if the people inside will fatally collide in a couple of hours, and a jury needs to decide on which ONE will live? What happens if they each hold secrets? Though this book is a bit over a year old, we decided to give it a spin — forgive the cliché.

Jennifer: So I had never heard of this book before, and I’m curious about the buzz that drew you to it.

Lara: This was put up as an option for one of my book clubs’ June picks and we voted to read it. It had helped that we had read a previous Marrs’ book, The One, and loved it.

Jennifer: Every once in a while, we review a book that is, well, not our usual fare. We tend to read literary fiction which might be somewhere on the scale of “literary light” (Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane) to heavy-duty literary: Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer; once, we crazily did Moby Dick. Sometimes, we venture into genre fiction. We read The Hunger Games. We’ve done other stuff. Though I get the hesitancy to categorize, it might be important for readers to understand if this is something they’d like. What do you think? And did you like it?

Lara: You failed to mention that you are a super snob and it was only because I RAVED about this that you were willing to read it. Oh, so yeah, I LOVED IT.

Jennifer: Forgive me. Yes, I’m a super snob.

Lara: This was one of the first books that could hold my attention during 2020: The Year of COVID-19 and Constant Distraction.

 Jennifer: I admit that it is tough for a book to hold my attention these days, and I feel a bit bad about that.

Lara: You kind of set it up in the intro, but you didn’t mention that, in addition to a jury of, like, six high profile people and one commoner, the protagonist Libby, the kidnapped passengers are being broadcast across all of the UK and the general population is chiming in on social media. As you can expect, Marrs nailed it. And as we hear the comments from the Interwebs, we lose our faith in humanity because some folks are more concerned with the style of Libby’s shoes than the livelihood of the vehicle captors.

Despite that kind of morbid sounding premise, there was a lot of humor and a heckuva lot of intrigue. Oh! And super crazy awesome audiobook production value. Music, 6-8 SEPARATE narrators. It was ridiculous! I couldn’t stop listening.

I am thinking this falls into your “guilty pleasure” category. What did you think?

Jennifer: Yeah, I think that’s fair. You are very right about the audiobook. As you noted, it’s the Year of Distraction — so I think we’re fairly sensitive to the notion of gripping story. This is a gripping story, for sure. I admire writers like this who can lure you into a plot. I have criticisms, but I’d say the good outweighs the bad.

What did you not like?

Lara: Honestly? Nothing. It’s a solid thriller, with just enough futuristic stuff to not turn me off. I totally dug it. I also liked the nod he gave to The One. Super clever.

Jennifer: I have no clue what that nod is. Are you able to share or not really?

Lara: Well, The One is about an online dating company that uses DNA samples to find your ONE TRUE soulmate. One of the hijacked characters in The Passengers, I think it’s Claire, mentions that she and her husband had used the service that is featured in The One. 

Jennifer: I kinda did think the story got a bit goofy at the end. Maybe my disbelief was suspended for only so long. I mean, the hacker was a tad over-the-top, you know? It’s a great plot. The characters are fascinating. A big strength is how Marrs reveals the hidden complications in the lives of all people. That was believable to me. What wasn’t believable was that, by the end, it seemed like the hacker knew what underwear a given character was wearing. It was a bit much.

Lara: With as much as people share on social media, it probably wasn’t hard for the hacker to know that level of detail! Hahaha!

Jennifer: If we were looking for major themes in this book, perhaps we might look at the increasing role of AI, Artificial Intelligence. This novel makes a subtle argument that there’s something dangerous and invasive about our increasing reliance on AI. Would you agree? Is there a message on AI in this book?

Lara: I definitely think he’s showing our continued willingness to have innovation used to create major conveniences in our lives, even if it means turning the control of our lives over to others. I think there is some truth to that.

Jennifer: Also, I think there’s cultural criticism here: we’re social media slaves? Social Media Monsters? It creates mob mentality? What do you personally think about this? I do think a lot about this, in all honesty. Is social media hell-on-earth?

Lara: There are clearly instances where social media can be used for good. I do believe that social media and the Internet can bring more of us together. However, I think it can also encourage greater divisiveness, the spread of false information, and make it super easy to point, blame and shame resulting in a huge lack of empathy for others.

Does reading this make you want to check out any of his other books? I think you should listen to The One.

 Jennifer: Yes, it does, but your praise is more weighty to me, probably. This book was a good time, and I could go for another good time. Guilty pleasures, in my humble opinion, are good and necessary—but I like a ratio of maybe one guilty pleasure per fifteen to twenty, um, highfalutin literary extravaganzas. Give me some Hunger Games. I did read the prequel (it’s okay). I read the Liz Phair memoir (meh). I’m excited to get a Bono book in 2021. I’ll do good zombie fiction, though I think the zombie narrative has seen its day (is there a pun in there?). This was a very well-done guilty pleasure. I confidently recommend it!

And for my fellow super snobs, I do think it’s worth our consideration: What makes for a “good” guilty-pleasure read? What place does it have in your reading life? Is it valuable? I know that, as a writer, I learn from these kinds of books—I’m very interested in pacing and suspense. Sometimes, literary fiction is weak in pacing and suspense!

So do you have “guilty-pleasure” books?

Lara: Honestly, books like this are my guilty pleasure. I love a fast paced, twisty and smart thriller.

Jennifer: What are you reading these days, in what seems to be one of the weirdest cultural moments in recent history?

Lara: I am reading Britt Bennett’s The Vanishing Half and will soon be starting Paulette Jiles’ Simon the Fiddler (I adored her previous book, News of the World), All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews, and Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist. All are for book clubs. I have to finish them. Damn distracting year.

As to your second question… I am not going to get political because all of that is super weird… but I will say the fascination with Tiger King (which I never watched) seemed pretty frickin’ weird.

What about you?

Jennifer: I watched Tiger King. My fascination was real, but short-lived. I’m over it now.

Reading these days isn’t always easy. I read How To Be An Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi (worth reading but uncompromisingly didactic), Like A Mule Bringing Ice Cream To The Sun by Sarah Ladipo Manyika (short, good book with best title ever), and—brace yourself—Woody Allen’s Apropos of Nothing (um, I got things to say, but in some other forum: see my Goodreads review). I’m in the middle of Chaim Potok’s Davita’s Harp. Probably a winner.

Next Up!

Join us in September when we meet up in a socially safe way to discuss Crooked Hallelujah by Kelli Jo Ford.


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