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Lies Are Illegal In The 'Golden State' Of Ben Winters

Imagine a world where lying is against the law. You might expect that any place that values truth so highly would be a utopia — but the world writer Ben Winters has created in Golden State is far from idyllic. And though it's set in the future, it's very much based on our current political moment.

Winters says he knows exactly when he started writing Golden State: The day following President Trump's inauguration. Specifically, it was after "the infamous incident of the inauguration crowd-size debate."

Then-press secretary Sean Spicer had insisted that the crowds at the inauguration were the largest ever — a statement that sparked a heated exchange between White House counselor Kellyanne Conway and NBC's Chuck Todd, in which Conway said Spicer had provided what she called "alternative facts."

All that talk about facts versus alternative facts — and real news versus fake news — got Winters thinking about what life might be like if facts were indisputable and there was no question about the truth.

"For me, this book was about, OK, let's say we can solve this problem," he says. "Let's say there really is a way where we could build a world where everybody knows the truth. What are the problems with that? Where does that take us?"

Where it takes us in Winters' novel is a place called the Golden State. (It bears a strong resemblance to California.) The world as we know it has been destroyed, and though we never find out exactly how, it appears it had something to do with a pandemic of lies. In the Golden State, lies are against the law, and the main enforcers of the truth are known as Speculators.

Winters says that if it's against the law to lie, it must also be against the law "to hypothesize, to imagine versions of what might have happened. But when you are trying to solve, for example, a suspicious death, sometimes it is necessary to hypothesize so we can try to follow the leads and crack this case. So to do that there are individuals within the Golden State, a special sort of law enforcement officer who has license to speculate."

Some Speculators seem to have an almost mystical ability to detect untruths — but that doesn't preclude the need for good old-fashioned gumshoe detective work. And that requires a good old-fashioned detective.

Laszlo Ratesic fills the bill. He's a big guy with an unruly red beard; a loner, still mourning the end of his marriage. Ratesic is a self-conscious man, embarrassed by his size and rumpled appearance, and acutely aware of the effect his official status has on others. He's always yearning for enough time to stop for a meal or a snack at his favorite haunts without someone disrupting his meal with lies.

In the Golden State, people greet each other with indisputable facts, like "2 plus 2 is 4" or "The earth is in orbit around the sun." An elaborate system of tracking and archiving the minute details of everyone's lives has been set up.

Ratesic is dedicated to upholding this order. But when he starts working a possible murder case with a new young partner, he uncovers some uncomfortable truths about the power structure that underpins his world.

"There is a constant collective effort in the Golden State to reinforce the truth in small ways and large," Winters says. "It is a place that is not only dedicated to the preservation of reality — it is worshipful of the truth. Which is why, when Lazlo start to realize that there is perhaps something else going on underneath all of this, why it is such a dangerous thing for him to discover."

With its classic detective figure and its futuristic world, Golden State is a cross between a mystery novel and dystopian fiction. But Winters doesn't really care how you define it.

"If you want to think about as a mystery, awesome," he says. "Like, dig it. It's a cool mystery. I hope it twists and turns in a satisfying solution. If you want to think about it as dystopian, and its about the sort of world that I built, and the ways that world is a kind of fun-house version of our world, fantastic. I love that too, and I'm very proud of the worldbuilding in the book. But at the end of the day: I just hope it's good."

In creating the Golden State, Winters says he wanted to build a world just different enough that readers would have to look at our own reality in a new way.

Tom Cole edited this story for broadcast.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lynn Neary is an NPR arts correspondent covering books and publishing.