Em X. Liu’s 2023 The Death I Gave Him is a vengeance-filled SF novel of revenge.
Hayden Lichfield returns to his father’s laboratory where he finds a corpse and a mystery. In the brief time that Hayden was gone, someone murdered his father Graham and erased the Elsinore Labs security camera footage. While direct evidence is now lost, the list of people with the necessary access is not long.
In fact, it would not even fully populate a hamlet.
The motive seems clear: the killer wanted to get their hands on the Sisyphus Formula, the key to immortality. The unitary name is misleading; while Graham has created the means to imbue a subject with regeneration and immortality, he was also working on recording memories. Hayden wastes no time exploiting the mystery-solving potential of the second. The results are disappointing, but Graham’s revenant is able to utter a damning name: Charles.
Charles is Graham’s brother and Hayden’s uncle. Charles is also one of the two people who could easily have hacked the cameras, Hayden being the other. Certain that he knows the guilty party, Hayden launches a bold scheme to punish his father’s murderer, acting with forthright diligence that might strike Othello as a bit hasty.
Following the revelation of the murder, Elsinore Labs is locked down. Trapped inside: Hayden, Charles, Elsinore Labs’ head of security Paul Xia, and Paul’s daughter (and Hayden’s ex) Felicia. While allied to Hayden, the building’s AI, Horatio, is bound by its programming and limited in its ability to help.
It’s trivial to set up a death trap for the killer. To Hayden’s surprise, it turns out to be much harder to ensure that the killer and not an innocent bystander is the one who encounters the lethal surprise. Charles is untouched. Paul on the other hand suffers a terrible and entirely unjust death.
With a single ineptly deployed trap, Hayden has reduced the number of humans with whom he is trapped to two: a killer who may well need to silence Hayden and a highly capable young woman whose father Hayden has just killed. What further achievements await Hayden?
Shakespeare’s Hamlet may appear to some hesitant and indecisive. Another way to look at his behavior is as an attempt to do due diligence before committing irreversible acts. While the results do not entirely recommend themselves, Liu makes a strong case that haste would have been even worse1. Hayden acts decisively with tragic results.
A question that arose over and over: how did Hayden and Charles think their zany gambits would end? For example, is it prudent to commit murder in such a way that the likely suspects can be counted on the fingers of a single hand? Orchestrating a death trap might seem like a cool idea, but … leaving aside the issue of targeting the proper victim, what will happen when the police finally force their way inside?
The evidence suggests that as bright as Hayden and his uncle may be in their respective fields, those fields are not applied skullduggery. Indeed, one could argue that they are both smart idiots, neither of whom is likely to pay the price for their homicidally lethal gambits. If only someone had distracted them with NFTs.
None of the above is a criticism of the book. Put characters of this sort in this situation and you can reliably expect bad events. This is not an I‑don’t‑care-what-happens-to-these-people novel. It’s a “I would like to see at least two of them serve lengthy prison terms” book.
Despite the brevity of the novel, Liu finds space for adventurous narrative structures, embellishing the tale with diverse presentation styles. This spices up an otherwise linear story.
1: To Hayden’s credit, his actions lead to the death of fewer people than do Hamlet’s. On the other hand, Hayden’s body count is a larger fraction of the available people.