Synopsis: Panoptica up-ends every dystopian cliché you've ever heard. It's a technicolour cartoon version of Brave New World. It's 1984 with knob gags. If you love sci fi satire in the best tradition of Pohl & Kornbluth, Douglas Adams and 2000AD, then Panoptica is the satirical novel of celebrity, surveillance and media manipulation you've been waiting for!
Panoptica feels like a warped dream or a British Thomas Pynchon novel and is reminiscent of some of the more surreal 2000AD comic stories I read as a kid. In a world where image is everything and nothing is more important than retaining media rights, Titus Spring sets out to stage a protest only to find himself facing a game-show trial for accidental regicide. The story follows his journey through a wacky alternate England with his barrister (and co-star), current licensee of the Robbie Williams franchise, as Titus struggles to clear his name before he wins a celebrity execution.
While I liked the setting, I didn't really understand Titus' world-view or the reasons for his actions, so I didn't feel as involved as I might have done. In addition, while the society is intended to be over the top it went a little too far and I couldn't quite understand how the privacy enclaves could survive against the might of the media. The ending of the novel goes some way toward explaining that, but I felt it was too late and didn't entirely work.
The pacing also didn't work for me. The story opens at a run but seemed to slow too much in the middle rather than progressing toward the end. One whole sequence, while interesting, seemed largely irrelevant to the story and in many places Titus didn't seem a very active character. Another sequence involved characters who use their own language, and while that sometimes worked I felt that it was a little too much in this case and skimmed through some of it.
Overall it was a novel which could have been great yet never quite reached that level, even though the world is memorable. Because it contains many references to British pop culture I suspect it will be better received there than elsewhere.
Hence I'm going to rate it as a 4 for British readers and a 3 for those who don't know much about British culture, as they will miss many of the allusions and jokes.