The moment we first 'see' Alef is the turning point for me. He is wasting with trauma, and it is just the start of it. In fact The Rig (written by Roger Levy) is saturated with traumas: each and every character's trajectory, their being and becoming if you will, is defined by both original and ongoing traumatic events. As such what this novel delivers is exactly what it proposes: a massive torture device called The Rig, which has been literally rigged to take the place of God.
God, and religion, have a big place here, and structure the novel's philosophical underpinnings and those of the characters residing on various planets of the System, each of which has a particular take on questions of religion and (self-)representation. Not least, with respect to the latter, are names and naming practices. One planet is essentially the 'unnamable' one, that which cannot be mentioned because it refuses to be named. The name of God cannot be uttered on the others because the 'state' on the planets of the System are officially atheist.
Most of the characters have some relation to the very Godly Gehenna, however, and the opening chapter of The Rig is comparable to LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness in its phenomenal descriptions of the mass rituals that occur there.
Besides the autistic Alef, whom we grow to love, so much revolves around Razer, and it is around her that most of the mystery The Rig contains (and it contains much mystery) revolves. Razer, in contrast to Alef's cerebral supremacy, is military capable, as is her lover and mission Tallen. Both of these latter characters have brain implants called 'neurids' through which external control can be maintained by central power (whether of the state or of the individual, which often conflate to the same this in this distant future).
Reading The Economist's Technology Quarterly this week on state surveillance I am struck by how 'state of the art' the technology in The Rig is. The idea of the neurid, of course, is a metaphor, and I would hesitate to say that it is even a novum here. The Rig itself fulfils this latter function, and the most important structuring metaphor. And by structuring I mean that it drives, metonymically, the action (I am here relying on Adam Roberts definitions of SF from both his book The History of Science Fiction, with respect to novums; and his blog post on metonymy/metaphor as defining SF).
The Rig passes that first test: it is enough about now that it pushes the envelope into the future a bit. This is all we can hope for, really. But The Rig is way beyond merely being satisfactory in this respect: I would argue for its exemplariness, and its excellence. This boils down to the great writing, the plotting, and the sympathy with which we come to regard the characters, even the evil ones! (This could be just me, but I'm sympathetic even to Pellenhorc). "Pellenhorc" is a brilliant name by the way. For starters it contains the word 'orc' and this cannot be a coincidence in my opinion.
Bleak, as a planet, is wonderfully evoked, and it contains possibly the bulk of the most important action (as opposed to thinking which occurs on other planets). There is action a-plenty here, of a believable and fast-moving kind: it is many and varied. Those who like action will be happy; those who like thinking, equally so.
Other aspects that are so, now: AfterLife and The Song. These two names evoke sites that are like advanced copies of our own twitter and facebook, but more virtual and all encompassing. And this brings us to the intergenerational aspect, the one that is about humankind maintaining cultural and technological continuities required for its extended reproduction in space and time. What the characters are faced with is existential in this regard; Alef and Razer are shouldering unbelievable masses of responsibility for the future of humanity.
And this is so much of what SF is about, in the end: survival in the face of forces of potential mass destruction. The Rig is a traumatic read, but I urge you with all haste to pick it up and read it as soon as possible.