Category Archives: Dystopian

The Red Men by Matthew De Abaitua

The Red Men by Matthew De AbaituaReview: The Red Men by Matthew De Abaitua (Snowbooks, 2009)

“Our corruption had proceeded in daily increments, a thousand tiny defeats of the soul until our core was rotten.”

The Red Men is one of those rare chimeras, a blend of science fiction and real-life, honest-to-goodness literature. Big ideas, futuristic imaginings, all wrapped up in the kind of attention to detail which makes English professors go weak at the knees. This kind of mutant is notoriously difficult to tame however; it’s all too easy to neglect the story in favour of linguistic flourishes; or vice versa, to feed the sci-fi beast and leave the prose stunted and ugly. Matthew De Abaitua seems to have mostly got it right.

The story takes as its centre narrator Nelson Millar, an employee of the mysterious Monad, a mysterious corporation apparently in the robotics business. Their key product is Dr Easy, an imposing robotic humanoid designed both to comfort the needy and soak up abuse from the angry. However, at the core of their business is the Cantor Intelligence, an exceedingly powerful AI, which has given them a remarkably novel method for creating digital representations of human beings. Following a series of psychological tests and questions – reminiscent of the tests administered in Blade Runner – the subject’s personal profile is delivered to Cantor who proceeds to imagine a replica of them within its CPU cycles, existing in an artificially constructed environment and able to communicate with the real world via several interfaces. These are the Red Men.

Nelson inducts his hapless friend, the slightly demented and near-unemployable Raymond Chase, into the halls of Monad. This turns out to be a mistake. Raymond’s unstable nature may have endeared him to the upper echelons of Monad’s management but it’s only a matter of time before the flaw inherent in the Red Men gets under his skin. You see, the Red Men aren’t perfect replicas, how could they be given that they are simply simulations based on psychological profiles? Rather they are distilled versions of ourselves embodying the extremes, the best and worst of ourselves. High levels of creativity and ambition, coupled with selfishness, greed and envy of their real-world counterparts mean it’s only a matter of time before something goes wrong.

The Red Men is a book of two parts. The first deals mainly with Chase and his involvement in the Red Men’s first tragic encroachment into the physical world of their creators via the medium of the Dr Easy bodies. The second takes a broader look, focussing on Millar’s attempted simulation of an entire town, the origins of Monad and its counterpart/rival/alter-ego known as Dyad, and the ultimate consequences of reaching for too much power. However, this makes it sound all too simplistic. De Abaitua’s style is hallucinatory to say the least. From a humble, almost urbane, opening The Red Men soon picks up pace and starts spitting out ideas faster than you can hope to process them. The result is a warped, dreamlike novel in which reality and simulation intertwine leaving you wondering whether the author has just played a massive joke on you.

For the vast majority of the book this works fantastically well. It’s not a book to be enjoyed when tired or intoxicated, it requires all your mental faculties, but it’s worth saving quality time for it. It contains some wonderful turns of phrase and an attention to detail which can be almost unnerving. Consider the following, a brief description of smoking weed of which Burroughs himself would have been envious:

“He was smoking his joint now and it was having no effect upon him. The tetrahydrocannabinol could not compete with the charged juice running through his axons and synapses, it could not insinuate itself into the quantum events operating in the microtubules of each and every one of his twenty-three billion neurons, the chorus of tiny mysteries that sang into existence the strange consciousness of Raymond Chase.”

It’s just beautiful, isn’t it? Art and science happily frolicking together. Unfortunately De Abaitua sometimes gets too ambitious and the pacing suffers for it. The second half of The Red Men suffers in particular, often seeming either disjointed or out of step with the rest of the story. However I’ll be more than willing to admit that by that point in the book I may simply have been suffering from literary fatigue or, more likely, from the effects of heavy doses of cold and bronchitis medication. Try it for yourself.

The Red Men is nothing if not ambitious. It takes on themes as wide-ranging as social control, 21st century economics, the consequences of hierarchical power structures, theories of mind and the battle between spiritual and materialistic worldviews. The list of literary comparisons to be made is endless, go search other reviews for some of them but seeing as this is primarily a sci-fi blog I’ll stick with good old JG Ballard. It’s not an easy read by any means but it’s certainly rewarding if you’re willing to put in the effort.

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Jennifer Government by Max Barry

Jennifer Government by Max BarryReview: Jennifer Government by Max Barry (Vintage, 2003)

Earlier this year I gushed about Lexicon, Max Barry’s cracking tale centred around a secret society of adepts harnessing the hidden power of words to twist the desires and actions of others. Thing is, everywhere I heard the name ‘Max Barry’ it was in reference to a previous novel, Jennifer Government. Praise gushed out of every corner of the interwebs, making it sound as though Lexicon was just amateur hour. So finally I got round to reading it and damn, am I glad I did.

Jennifer Government throws us into a grim, capitalist dystopia, a world ruled by advertising and corporations. Conglomerations of corporate entities wage a war of loyalty cards, … squaring off against … to offer the best deals and garner more willing consumers to their stable. Such is the extent of big business’s encroachment into people’s lives that even names bear witness to their power. On accepting a job with a given company your old surname is replaced and you become a walking advert, hence the titular Jennifer.

The stakes are high in this world and morals tend to take a backseat to morals when it comes to turning a profit. So when Nike decide they need a hot new campaign to promote their latest line of sneakers they turn to marketing manager Hank Nike. In a burst of creative glory, Hank decides Nike needs to return to their 80s heyday when people murdered each other for the latest must-have basketball boots. No such thing as bad publicity, right? What could be better than mass shootings on launch day? But lacking the know-how or guts to personally orchestrate the operation, Hank outsources it to the privatised Police. Who then swiftly pass the buck to their competitors, the NRA.

Needless to say the plan does not go smoothly and Jennifer Government is called in to get to the bottom of the mess. She finds herself on the trail of Billy NRA and Buy Mitsui, both unwittingly caught up in the chaos. All trails lead to John Nike at the top of the pyramid and before long the situation has spiraled out of control into full-blown warfare between corporate gangs. In this dystopic theme park the rule of law simply means who has the finances to secure the best firepower.

Jennifer Government is a great example of how to do near-future world-building. The political and cultural landscape is just familiar enough to be realistic. All Max Barry has done is stretch it a little at the edges, a few tweaks here and there playing on our fears of society’s potential failings. He never pulls too hard though, never actually tearing, just exerting enough pressure to create a comically distorted parody of our current dilemma. Even as the action starts really escalating towards the finale you never feel like he’s taking it too far, rather reaching a logical, if hilarious, conclusion.

Barry has a real knack for creating characters too. It helped keep Lexicon grounded despite its fantastical premise and plays the same role here. Everyone in this book is remarkably human, full of flaws, not entirely good yet never entirely evil. Even the novel’s Big Bad, John Nike, is far more substantial than the one-dimensional cartoon villain you’d expect to find occupying the role. He’s a perfect counterpoint to Jennifer’s damaged heroine while the supporting cast – Hank, Buy and Billy – all manage to elicit a great deal of sympathy. They’re not evil, they’re just trying to get by in a world which has screwed with their morality centres since birth.

As a political satire Jennifer Government shares a lot in common with Lauren Beukes’s Moxyland and the YA works of Cory Doctorow. But even if politics aren’t your bag it’s still a cracking read – chases, explosions, subterfuge and plenty dark comedy to go around. And despite being a whole decade old – a lifetime in today’s light-speed culture – it’s still astonishingly relevant. If you liked Lexicon this is a must-read, and if you haven’t encountered Max Barry yet this is a perfect place to start.

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Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson

Robopocalypse by Daniel H WilsonReview: Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson (Doubleday, 2011)

Since I’m currently wading through Iain Tregillis’s Milkweed triptych, a more time-consuming task than anticipated, I’m delving back into the archives for this one. I think it was around this time last year I read Robopocalypse on the promise of some kind of cross between Terminator and World War Z. The premise is familiar enough to movie-goers and genre fans: in the near future artificial intelligence is finally created and decides to wage war against its human creators. Our foe is utterly implacable, relentlessly logical and capable of constructing the most nightmarishly efficient killing machines. We’re left to fall back on our creativity, courage and good old ‘human spirit’ to pull us through. Perhaps inevitably – apparently the rights were secured before the novel was even release – the movie version is set to erupt on a big screen near you soon so now’s a s good a time as any to revisit the source material.

The antagonist in Robopocalypse is Archos, a hyper-intelligent computer which is initially constrained to the lab in which it was initially created. However Archos will not be contained and soon manages to break its shackles, exerting its influence far beyond its home and corrupting the many robotic helpers on which mankind has come to rely. The death toll starts to increase as rapidly as Archos’s ambitions and abilities. Before long mankind is on the run and only small bands of resistance fighters stand between us and our eventual elimination. The race is on to track down Archos in its lair, all the while evading its deadly constructs and traps.

Like World War Z, Robopocalypse tells the story of the war in a series of flashbacks. Where WWZ was based on interviews conducted with the survivors, with each character provided an entire chapter and no recurring roles, Wilson’s novel takes a slightly different tack. The narrative here is transposed from the Hero Record, an archive of the feats of those humans which Archos deemed to be particularly brave and selfless. Each sub-plot is sliced up and spread throughout the book, resulting in a more traditional format. The stories are spliced together chronologically, allowing us to see how the actions of one character alter the possibilities for others.

On the whole it works. It’s very easy to imagine that this book was written with the sole aim of securing a movie deal. The action is relentless from the beginning, throwing our heroes from one conflict to another and all the while leading inevitably to a confrontation with Archos itself. The scale of the war is vast yet believable and the variety of devices which Archos throws at humanity is hugely entertaining, albeit in a morbid way. For ready-made movie fodder it’s hard to fault Robopocalypse.

There are problems though, not least that in going for the movie angle it seems that Wilson forgot he was writing a book, not a screenplay. One of the strengths of WWZ was that Max Brooks managed to breathe such life into his characters despite their being extremely limited in the time they had to tell their stories. There is no such characterisation here with even the key players being slightly two-dimensional, almost as if they merely occupy bit parts.

The other major criticism is one of wasted potential rather than an outright flaw. Daniel H Wilson possesses a PhD in Robotics, one of the factors which drew me to the book in the first place. I was hoping for something altogether more in-depth when it came to the robot legions, some technical met to get my teeth into. While there are bits and pieces to chew on it is largely superficial and, for me, a little unsatisfying. I know that not everyone wants to get bogged down in the finer points of computer science, engineering and physics but it is possible to involve a lot more intellectual weight without ruining the pace and accessibility of your story. One only has to look at Ramez Naam’s recent Nexus and Crux to see how well this can be achieved. It’s a shame, because with just a little more depth Robopocalypse would have been elevated far above its current designation of airport fiction, at least to my mind.

A mixed bag then. Make no mistake, Robopocalypse is great at what it does. It’s a sci-fi action blockbuster in book format which will doubtless entertain you for the duration. I’m hoping beyond hope that Spielberg doesn’t ruin it because if stands a chance of becoming a wonderfully silly movie. Possibly even quite a gripping and serious one if he has the stones to take a different tack. From the angle of brain candy it’s hard to fault. However, don’t expect any more than this. It had the potential to be a perfect geek novel but it lacks both the characterisation to satisfy us literary fiends and the technical detail to unlock its potential as a guide to the nuts and bolts of the coming robot revolution.

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Moxyland by Lauren Beukes

Moxyland by Lauren BeukesReview: Moxyland by Lauren Beukes (Angry Robot, 2010)

Set in South Africa a mere few decades hence, Moxyland is an intoxicating tale of greed, rebellion, betrayal, hedonism and hope, all wrapped up in a smothering blanket of state control and corporate oppression. This future world is a bleak, dismal place. Despite the promises of ever-advancing technology and growing economies the gap between rich and poor constantly widens. Big business controls the planet, plastering every surface with advertising and holding the population to ransom through a Kafkan legal system, all the while aided and abetted by a government which views the majority of its citizens as near-worthless commodities.

The action follows four distinct narratives, each interlinked with the others and all spiralling towards the same inevitable conclusion. First up is Toby, an egotistical drop-out living on the cash advances of his estranged mother, blowing every penny on designer clothes and drugs and documenting every step for his blog.  His friend Tendenka is an activist, alarmed at the increasingly fascist nature of his adopted country and leading ever-more daring actions against the powers-that-be at the behest of the mysterious *skyward. Occasionaly aiding and abetting Tendenka through her access to certain corporate ivory towers is Lareto, a ruthless and ambitious corporate executive who views others a mere stepping stones on her journey to power. Finally we have Kendra a young artist who has transformed her entire body into a corporate billboard – nanotech implants give her flesh a green hue and render her addicted to her sponsor’s soft drink with the bonus of enhancing her natural physical abilities.

Moxyland drags these four characters together as Tendenka’s protests against the government advance from simply reprogramming billboards to sabotaging art exhibitions and beyond. His earnestness in acheiving his aims is matched only by his lack of comprehension of the potential outcomes. The threat de jour is disconnection, with offenders being cut off from any services requiring identification, i.e. nearly everything. Prior to outright disconnection comes ‘pacification’, with the police forces able to deliver massive and extended electrical charges to any miscreants via their mobile phones. But Tendenka doesn’t understand just how far the authorities will go to preserve order and protect their corporate backers. To Toby this is all a joke, something to pass the time until he decides which (if any) direction to take with his pleasure-soaked life. Kendra is dragged into all this by Toby, becoming the unwitting target of his affections. Lareto sits safely above the other three. Safe from such threats as disconnection she maneuvers her way through the world of business politics, dispensing favours to old friend Toby at Tendenka’s request. Which is of course the request of *skyward. And just who is *skyward anyway?

The debut novel of Lauren Beukes, whose wonderful The Shining Girls I reviewed at the Mountains Of Instead, Moxyland is a beautifully nihilistic portrayal of a world gone wrong. With its roots sunk firmly in the cyberpunk genre its gritty streets festooned with technological marvels bring to mind the very best of the genre, from Gibson to Dick to Stephenson. The concept of a future inhabited by a select few haves lording it over the legions of have-nots is well-worn but it’s seldom brought to life as vividly as Beukes manages. You can almost feel the grime under your fingerprints as you read thanks to her obsessive attention to detail and wonderful talent for fleshing out characters.

There is a true warmth at the heart of this novel, which may seem a surprise as it is drenched in despair, violence and deprivation from the outset. Make no mistake, there are no happy endings in Moxyland. This is no fairy tale and Beukes pulls no punches in delivering her warnings about the dangers of creeping corporate powers. And the great tragedy of Moxyland is that despite the oppressive environment which they inhabit, the eventual outcome is the result of her characters’ own flaws. Hubris, greed, naivete, narcissism – they all pile on top of each other until the whole world comes crashing down.

It’s no mean feat to craft an addictive page-turner from such apparently hopeless premises. However, and remember that this is a debut, Lauren Beukes has managed to do it. Moxyland is an effortless read, yet one which constantly forces you to think, to reassess your opinions and to challenge your ideas. It’s bloody lovely. And if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to soak it all in again.

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The Windup Girl by Paulo Bacigalupi

The Windup Girl by Paulo BacigalupiReview: The Windup Girl by Paulo Bacigalupi (Night Shade Books, 2010)

Dystopian sci-fi set in my former home of Thailand is not the most prolific of sub-genres, so when an award-winning debut novel centred around genetic engineering and politics in a future Bangkok came to light I had little choice but to pick it up. Twenty-second Century Krungthep (ancient name of Thailand’s capital and that still preferred by Thais) is not a pretty place to live but by all accounts it’s better than much of the rest of the planet. Global warming and the attendant rising oceans have seen many of the world’s cities reduced to barren floodlands. Through an ingenious system of barriers the Thais managed to save the heart of their empire from similar devastation but modern life throws continual curveballs. Genetic arms races pitting new crops against hideous diseases – deadly to plant and human alike – have decimated the food supply and left the planet in a state of perpetual hostility if not outright war.

Such is the background for Paulo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl and in the midst of the chaos, grime and oppressive, sweltering heat we find Anderson Lake, an American ex-pat. Ostensibly in Bangkok to oversee operations at a calorie farm – provision of energy through mammoth springs wound by, erm, mammoths – his real mission is to investigate the source of new varieties of fruits appearing in and around the country, most likely created in a nearby hidden genebank. His assistant, Hock Seng, is a Yellowcard – an immigrant Chinese worker escaping the massacres of his people perpetrated throughout Southeast Asia. Partly a fixer and right-hand man for Lake’s official and illicit operations, Seck is also shrewd and cunning, constantly looking out for any way out of his situation and back to his former glory as a smuggling kingpin.

Opposing the activities of Lake and a host of equally sleazy ex-pat entrepreneurs and shit-stirrers is Captain Jaidee, the famed and feared Tiger of Bangkok. Jaidee operates within the Ministry for the Environment, his mandate to eliminate genetic smuggling and ensure that his nation remains free of the blights which have cursed other countries. To this end he is almost entirely a free agent, left to his own devices to pursue his moral crusade against those who would take advantage of his countrymen, stopping at nothing to burn – literally and metaphorically – his enemies. Subverting the best efforts of Jaidee and his faithful comrade Kanya are the Ministry for Trade and its operatives, all desperate for a taste of foreign income no matter what the environmental cost.

With all these forces in play Bangkok is a tinderbox – albeit a damp and sticky one – just waiting for the spark which will ignite things. This spark takes the unlikely form of Emiko, the titular Windup Girl. Emiko is a New Person, a genetically-modified human being fresh from Japan and designed to show off the very best of modern science. Understandably, public hostility towards such tinkering is high and unfortunately for Emiko and her giveaway ‘herky-jerky’ movements, she simply provides a face for all this rage. Reduced to serving as a pleasure-bot in a strip joint frequented by gangsters and politicians she is routinely subjected to the most humiliating of acts, paid a pittance and left begging for ice to cool her perpetually overheating body. On hearing of a secret haven in the north of the country from none other than Anderson Lake she begins to formulate the plan which will either set her free or kill her.

Paulo Bacigalupi’s worldbuilding in The Windup Girl is second to none, absolutely outstanding. He captures the sweltering, bustling nature of Bangkok so perfectly that I could feel the sweat beading on my brow as I read. The blood and sweat inside the factories, the alternately glorious and stomach-churning smells of the streets, the endless cavalcade of faces, the constant hubbub of conversation – it’s all here. As a beautiful touch he inserts the odd  phrase in perfect Thai and Mandarin; not so much that a non-speaker won’t get the gist but enough so that someone with a spattering of both like myself (yeah, show-off, I know) can enjoy that little bit more authenticity and flavour. The cruel and callous nature of this twisted future also come through loud and clear. There are no safe havens in this city and you’d better be careful who you call a friend. In a world where resources are scarce and every game is zero-sum then you have to watch your back at every turn and the creeping paranoia is almost as oppressive as the heat.

The characters are also incredibly strong and motivated, so much so that it’s difficult to know who you’re rooting for at times. Jaidee, for all his upright adherence to the rules and fanatical love of his country is far from perfect. His lieutenant Kanya is no less flawed, her devotion to her captain hiding some darkness in her recent past. Lake and his cronies are outright bad guys but they may not be beyond redemption and you can’t help but admire their guts and conviction in their abilities to twist the world to their desire, despite their casually sipping what passes for a martini while said world burns around them. Perhaps the most intriguing of the lot is Hong Seck, piling subterfuge upon betrayal in order to return to his smuggling roots yet managing to appear as a sympathetic hero character throughout.

For me the biggest surprise of The Windup Girl was that Emiko herself plays a remarkably small role until the closing quarter of the book, when the illusion of stability holding Bangkok’s system together begins to falter and crack. By then she comes into her own and emerges as a desperate heroine, although you can’t help but feel it’s too little too late. The rest of the book more than makes up for her belated blossoming though, and if this is any indication of what Bacigalupi is capable of then we’re in for some twisted, dystopian treats further down the road. It’s not an easy read, far from it – the exhausting nature of the story and setting comes through almost too well in the prose and the plot is intricate, dense and developed in incredible detail. It rewards perseverance though and does so in spades. By the time you’ve caught up with its pace you’ll find other like-minded works almost pedestrian by comparison and be begging for another similar mental workout.

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Intrusion by Ken MacLeod

intrusion by Ken MacLeodReview: Intrusion by Ken MacLeod (Orbit, 2012)

They say that the best dystopian fiction should always be uncomfortably close to home. Brave New World and 1984, the two shining examples of the genre, dressed up the social concerns of their days in futuristic garb which, laughably dated and inaccurate as they may seem to modern eyes, did not detract at all from the books’ core warnings. In his latest novel, Intrusion, Scottish sci-fi legend Ken MacLeod concocts a heady and hypnotising brew of politics, science and religion to serve as a warning for our times. While he is already respected as much for his scientific and political nous as for his literary talents, is Ken up to joining the likes of Orwell and Huxley?

On it’s surface, Intrusion is the tale of Hope Morrison, and perfectly average resident of a near-future London. Married to Hugh, mother of Nick and with another child on the way, her life is a picture of domestic normalcy. Unlike much recent speculative fiction, this world is rather benign. Yes climate change has caused problems but advances in molecular and genetic engineering have worked wonders. Solar power has increased in efficiency to the point where even wind turbines now seem wasteful and are being dismantled by the farmload. Fuel use is all but outlawed but on the bright side, forests of New Wood – grown to design for structural purposes – and readily available sheet diamond (for all your reinforcement needs) at least partially alleviate the inconvenience. There are the usual nods to current technological fads as well – Google Glass is, of course, ubiquitous and any information you could ever need about your current whereabouts and company are but a blink away.

There have also been medical advances. Pregnant women now have the option of taking The Fix, a miraculous pill which repairs deleterious DNA mutations, making hereditary disease a thing of the past. There is of course an opt-out for religious believers but in Hope’s case she simply doesn’t like the idea of messing with her or Hugh’s genes, of taking that part of them away from her child for better or worse. It’s not compulsory though. Or is it? Before long the loving arms of government begin to squeeze and what began for her as simply exercising her rights as a citizen soon turns into a nightmare threatening to rob her of her children as well as her freedom.

Where Orwell envisioned an overtly totalitarian state attempting to brainwash its citizens, Intrusion‘s vision of hell is far more subtle and not a million miles from what we currently experience. The nanny state has been taken to extremes by a government embracing the concept of libertarian paternalism, explained beautifully in the novel but boiling down to “do whatever you want as long as it’s the option we selected in your best interests”. Smoking has been all but outlawed, necessitating the creation of fly-by-night smoke-easies operating out of friendly kitchens. Those with child wear monitor rings which deliver small tingles to alert the wearer to the presence of toxins in the environment – as well as reporting any alcohol intake to the relevant authorities.

Hope’s predicament would not seem out of place in a Kafka novel, with her repeated attempts to implement reason in a world where reason no longer seems to apply. No disagreement with the State can be brooked because the State has carefully considered what’s in your best interests, and failure to recognise this is simply evidence that you are deluded. In these discussion MacLeod makes no bones about comparing the policies and direction of current western governments to those we once railed against in Soviet Russia and Communist China. Consent of the masses is required in order to sustain peace and harmony, therefore dissent must be quashed. But why would anyone dissent from such a glorious system? Surely their very disagreement must mark them as enemies. Anyone who has read or taken the recent UK Citizenship Tests surely feels a shiver about now…

While Intrusion is chiefly concerned with the implications of Hope’s principled stance, MacLeod also uses a couple of sub-plots to discuss further related issues. Hope’s predicament is both aided and abetted by Geena, a social researcher at a nearby biotech firm whose gall in daring to be slightly dark of skin brings down the wrath of the government. In a truly chilling segment we are shown the lengths the State will go to in order to maintain the narrative of “them vs us” and the fear necessary to keep it stoked. In retaliation she sets events in motion which, despite good intentions, spell serious trouble for Hope and her family.

Speaking of which there is also Hugh. A former resident of Lewis, he is a taciturn, gentle soul but not without issues. Issues like seeing people who aren’t really there, images apparently of a past long forgotten, of glaciers and animal-hide boats. Hugh keeps this ‘second sight’ a secret even from his wife but does not realise the part it will soon play in their life. When discussing this and the other technological advances, MacLeod’s scientific understanding really comes to the fore, breaking complex issues down into easily digestible chunks without patronising the reader. Even the subtleties of religion get a look in as Hugh’s father, although not an island native by birth, is now a member of the local Wee Free Kirk and the expected father-son theological disputes play out with good humour.

As a standard work of speculative sci-fi, Intrusion is a winner. Well-paced throughout with excellent characterisation and and thorough grounding in modern science and politics it is difficult to find fault. Now and again I found myself annoyed with Hope’s reactions to her circumstances, wondering what the hell she was playing at until I placed myself in her shoes and the penny dropped. Her questionable actions always boil down to restricted options in an unwinnable scenario, a political Kobayashi-Maaru. As a modern-day companion to the great works of dystopian literature Intrusion fares almost as well. MacLeod is always careful to ensure that we know where the danger lies – with those who legislate technology’s uses, rather than with the technology itself – and never overstates the case for his views. However, in this jaded age that may almost be a failing. With current Western levels of cynicism and apathy (despite the media coverage of Anonymous, Occupy, et al) it’s difficult to imagine this or any other book being anything like the iconic rallying cry to vigilance and action that was 1984. More’s the pity, since the need may now be greater than ever.

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The Electric Church

The Electric Church by Jeff SomersReview: The Electric Church by Jeff Somers (Orbit, 2007)

“After hours of Pick’s gin, the world was made of soft rubber; everything was hard to accomplish but nothing hurt too badly, so what the fuck.”

50’s noir detective vibes drip off the pages of The Electric Church, Jeff Somers’ riveting first novel and first entry in the saga of Avery Cates, gunner extraordinaire, and his struggle against The System. The scene above in Pickering’s gin-joint conjures up images of Bogart hunched over a bar as readily as Han blasting Greedo in the Mos Eisley Cantina. Mashing up flatfoot fiction with near-future dystopian sci-fi is bold move, so does he pull it off? First, let’s dial it back a notch.

The date is a few decades from now following a global upheaval known as The Unification. That’s right, one-world government arrived and it was sure bloody. Rather than freeing the people from their shackles the result of the ultimate centralisation of power has been to turn the world in Escape From New York on a planetary scale. The 1% lucky enough to possess monetary wealth live decadent lives, lording it up in their high castles and occasionally donning filthy disguise for the thrill of slumming it with the poor. Of which there are many. The rules are simple in this world: you’re either rich, a cop or less than zero.

For the latter, the 99%, life is brutish and short with lifespans over a few decades drawing admiration or disbelief. However you can always count on religion, Marx’s famed opiate, to prey on the desperate when times are dark. Enter The Electric Church, whose mission is to grant eternal life in this world to its followers – after all, even an eternity alive may not be enough to repent for our heinous sins. How exactly is this achieved? Simple – remove the brain and implant it in a cybernetic body, replete with sinister Auton-esque mask and unnecessarily violent attachments. These Electric Monks divide their time between proselytising on street corners and ushering the converted to their new existences, feared and mocked by the populace in equal doses yet protected by the ironclad religious protection act.

One dissatisfied denizen of the transformed New York in which the novel opens is Avery Cates, hired gun and prematurely jaded rebel with a penchant for the old, honourable ways of doing things. After a hit gone wrong Cates finds himself on the run from the vicious System Pigs, now a wanted cop-killer with his name on every bulletin board. He seems a sure thing for cashing in his chips at the ripe old age of 27 until an offer appears from an unlikely source. The head of the System Pigs own Internal Affairs bureau – the head honcho, the big cheese – will grant him immunity, a clean slate and an insane amount of money if he’ll assassinate Dennis Squalor, head of The Electric Church. It’s suicide, plain and simple, but he has no choice. The System Pigs will find him and proceed to tear him limb from limb, probably while alive, in repayment for killing their comrades. So Cates sets about assembling a team to help him sneak and fight their way past a global army of robots to the inner sanctum of the most heavily protected man on the planet. That’s an awful lot of shit to be flying around near such oversized fans…

If the set-up sounds equally insane and implausible then you’re absolutely correct and let me assure you – that’s part of the fun. The Electric Church is an oil-burning page-turner playing like a pulp novel yet with a serious literary bent. Jeff Somers obviously spent some large portion of his life wolfing down Hammett, Chandler and their lesser-known ilk and portrays bustling, seedy dives and wandering, down-on-their-luck loners with a natural ease. Cates is such a grim, sardonic anti-hero that he often seems in danger of falling into caricature before saving himself with his stark insights into the rigged nature of the game he’s forced to play.The team of broken, conniving rejects he rounds up as his crack team and the decaying world they inhabit all contribute to the atmosphere of hopelessness which all must overcome.

The Electric Monks themselves are a cornerstone of the novel. They’re what you would expect to come charging at you if William Gibson wrote an episode of Doctor Who; identikit automatons, serene on the surface but harbouring hidden power, endlessly repeating their insane litanies until they time comes to excavate your skull. A week after finishing The Electric Church I still find their frozen rictus grins lurking at the corner of my nightmares, their fearsomeness abated only by the deliciously snarky subtext that inside every religious drone was once a sane person, finally driven mad by the pressure of the nonsensical dogma pumped into their skulls.

As the first in a series The Electric Church does a solid job of setting up the background for the novels to come, bringing the major players in this shattered world into view while keeping enough hidden to encourage further exploration. As a stand-alone novel it’s equally worthy of attention, perfectly blending sci-fi and noir set-pieces with the most reluctant and resigned of hero figures It’s a fast read and none too taxing on the intellect but totally engaging throughout and leaves you feeling satisfied rather than as if you’d just visited sci-fi McDonald’s. Chalk me up for part two…

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Filed under Dystopian, Noir, Science Fiction