Sebastian Stanhope is playing chess at school when he is told that his mother, Clara, is dead. His grief turns into confusion when his teacher tells him the next piece of news: his father, Cecil, killed her. Why would Cecil, an aspiring Prime Minister, a good and non-violent man, kill his wife?
Those watching Cecil are in no doubt of his guilt. If they don’t see the murder live on W, they see it seconds later, when it is beamed into their Eyescreens. Fortunately for Sebastian, he isn’t wearing his Eyescreens when the murder happens. If it hadn’t been for chess, he would have been. They are an extension of him like they are for everyone else. Through them, he accesses W. He can see what anybody is doing and what anybody has done. He spends his evenings watching his friends or an unknown family’s drama unfold. Of course, he flicks away if he stumbles across something improper like people having sex. He doesn’t want to be called a voyeur.
Unsurprisingly, there is no obvious explanation for the murder. If it had been predictable, Cecil would have been stopped. But Sebastian doesn’t want to think about the murder. He is sure Cecil has a good reason – Cecil always has a good reason. Sebastian wants to get on with his final exams and be a normal teenager. But what is the normal way of grieving for a murdered mother? He can’t watch W and follow what other people do. And how will his new viewers judge him? Unable to figure out what society expects, Sebastian tries to forge his own path after the school year ends. But he finds that even the smallest diversions from social convention lead to unfavourable comparisons to his dad.
Cecil is impossible to ignore. Inundated with viewers, he becomes popular with students for his polemics against unemployment and inequality. Sebastian hopes that University will provide a fresh start, but how can he make new friends when the only thing people want to talk to him about is his dad?
Unable to escape the legacy of the murder and uncertain about what he should and shouldn’t do, Sebastian is driven to discover Cecil’s motive. Using W, he plunges into his parents’ pasts to try to understand the people they really were and whether his memories of them contain any truth. Ultimately Sebastian is forced to come to terms with his own identity and his lack of control over it.
A Rational Man is about a world without privacy. Not about a 1984-style totalitarian State, but rather a dictatorship of public opinion to which its people have succumbed to willingly. At a time when social media hounds out controversial opinions and identity is reduced to clothing and hairstyles, A Rational Man illustrates the delicate balance between the security that comes with transparency and the privacy we need to become ourselves. It is not the State we have to fear but each other.