Book: The Ferryman
Author: Justin Cronin
Source: Ballantine Books
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Genre: Science Fiction
Publication Date: May 2, 2023
Founded by the mysterious genius known as the Designer, the archipelago of Prospera lies hidden from the horrors of a deteriorating outside world. In this island paradise, Prospera’s lucky citizens enjoy long, fulfilling lives until the monitors embedded in their forearms, meant to measure their physical health and psychological well-being, fall below 10 percent. Then they retire themselves, embarking on a ferry ride to the island known as the Nursery, where their failing bodies are renewed, their memories are wiped clean, and they are readied to restart life afresh.
Proctor Bennett, of the Department of Social Contracts, has a satisfying career as a ferryman, gently shepherding people through the retirement process–and, when necessary, enforcing it. But all is not well with Proctor. For one thing, he’s been dreaming–which is supposed to be impossible in Prospera. For another, his monitor percentage has begun to drop alarmingly fast. And then comes the day he is summoned to retire his own father, who gives him a disturbing and cryptic message before being wrestled onto the ferry.
Meanwhile, something is stirring. The Support Staff, ordinary men and women who provide the labor to keep Prospera running, have begun to question their place in the social order. Unrest is building, and there are rumors spreading of a resistance group–known as “Arrivalists”–who may be fomenting revolution.
Soon Proctor finds himself questioning everything he once believed, entangled with a much bigger cause than he realized–and on a desperate mission to uncover the truth.
I was given an advanced reader’s copy of The Ferryman by Justin Cronin by Ballantine Books via NetGalley. Thank you Ballantine Books!
The Ferryman by Justin Cronin takes place in what some people might call a paradise. The rest of the world has long since been lost to the ravages of climate change and other upheavals, but in the archipelago of Prospera, people are thriving. This group of islands is protected from the rest of the world by the Veil. Citizens of Prospera lead lives of ease and relative comfort, and they are free to explore and pursue whatever makes them happiest.
Prosperans don’t have to worry about illness or age. Each of them has a monitor in their forearm that generates a percentage illustrating their physical and mental health. If the number begins to drop, they seek help from a doctor. However, the ravages of time can’t be fully escaped. So, if a Prosperan’s number gets too low, they will retire. Retired Prosperans travel by ferry to a nearby island called The Nursery. Here their bodies are restored, and their memories are wiped. They emerge with teenage bodies and new minds to be adopted by adult Prosperans, and in this way, they live a new iteration of life.
While this process is normal, it can still be frightening and stressful. Thus, it is the job of ferrymen to assist Prosperans in their retirement journey. Proctor Bennett is a ferryman, and he is one of the best at the job. One day, Proctor must take his own father to the ferry, and this doesn’t go without incident as it usually does. His father has to literally be dragged onto the ferry all while desperately trying to give Proctor a message.
The message means nothing to Proctor. He is left unsettled, and he would just chalk it up to the rambling of a failing mind. There’s just one problem. Proctor has been dreaming, and his monitor number has been dropping at an alarming rate. Both are signs that he may soon join the very retirees he’s been assisting all along. Now, Proctor must unravel his father’s message if he hopes to escape an early retirement. This leads him on a journey to unravel mysteries and plans that could lead to the destruction of everyone in Prospera.
It would be easy to think of Prospera as a utopia. People living here do the work they want to do. They don’t get sick. All of their physical and financial needs are met. However, it’s clear pretty early in the book that while the citizens of Prospera think they live in a near-utopian society, there are cracks in the façade. For example, Proctor makes a comment about how the process of iteration renders Prosperans infertile. They can’t have children of their own, but Proctor says it’s better that way because then the women of their society don’t have to endure the painful, dangerous, and disfiguring process of giving birth.
There’s just one problem with this belief. Prosperans aren’t the only inhabitants of the archipelago. There’s another island, called The Annex, which houses people called The Support Staff. The Support Staff consists of normal people who are born, live, and die. They are the domestics, the garbage men, and the people who perform all the menial labor to support the lives of the Prosperans. They have to worry about illness and injury as any normal human would expect.
At this point in the story, Proctor doesn’t seem to think there’s anything wrong with the members of the Support Staff going through pregnancy and childbirth. They are all allowed to live naturally as they aren’t permitted to undergo the reiteration process.
So, it is easy to see how this situation could lead to underground rebellion movements, which is what begins to appear with The Arrivalists. It’s a difficult thing to watch people live a life of ease every day while you are denied that same life and opportunity. The Prosperans obviously have enough to support themselves, but they seem to have no interest in sharing it. In fact, even Proctor barely spares a thought for the lives of the Support Staff until much later in the book.
It is also incredibly easy to draw parallels between the story and the current state of the real world. Like in Prospera, much of the wealth of the world is concentrated in the hands of a relative few. These also happen to be the people in charge of how the world is run, even if nominal lip-service is given to the will of the people being the ruling force. In Prospera, no such attempt is made. It is essentially a police-state, but that’s only a problem if you aren’t Prosperan.
Reading this book really raised all kinds of questions about the world. For example, even though the Prosperans live in a supposed utopian society and have very little to worry about, people still have problems. Proctor had a troubled upbringing, especially after his mother’s tragedy, and he has problems confronting his past just like anyone else might. It helped emphasize the fact that just because someone has everything they need physically, their emotional and mental needs could be going unmet which leads to unhappiness as well.
Also, the idea of reiteration was both appealing and disturbing in equal measure. It’s appealing to believe we could have a form of immortality via rejuvenation, but it’s almost like the Ship of Theseus for humans. If they wipe their memories and fix or replace all the broken pieces are you still the same person? The Prosperans have to re-learn how to live all over again. If their memories are wiped, how do they learn from the past? As far as I could tell, they don’t. They’re told by their Guardians – adopted parents – how the world works and what to believe instead. Those in power could just manufacture history and indoctrinate the new iterants at will with this system. The Prosperans seem just as trapped as the Support Staff, albeit in a different way that’s easier to deal with.
This was definitely one of my favorite reads so far this year, and I have had a number of great reads already. This story really made me think, and Justin Cronin did an amazing job of making me care about all of the characters. I wanted to know what was going to happen to them, and there was even a point about 100 pages from the end I had to put the book down for a day because events were moving so quickly. Things were looking dire for characters I cared about, and I need time to decompress and adjust. There are some very unexpected twists at the end, but the ending is worth it to see all the puzzle pieces finally fall into place.
I gave The Ferryman by Justin Cronin five out of five stars. It’s a story about power struggles and dynamics, an exploration of grief, and a dissection of what drives and motivates humanity. Oh how I envied the Prosperans in their ability to completely change the course of their lives if they found their chosen career to be unfulfilling. I also understood the feelings of the Support Staff in how trapped they felt in their existence with no hope of upward movement. There is a lot more to this book than what is initially apparent. If you’re looking for a sci-fi story with plenty of action, mystery, and heart, then definitely give this book a read!
Have you read any of Justin Cronin’s other books? What did you think? Let me know in the comments!