Category Archives: Thriller

Broken Monsters

Broken Monsters by Lauren BeukesReview: Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes (Harper Collins, 2014)

It’s easy to gush praise for Lauren Beukes. Sounds sycophantic but it’s just plain true. First she gave us the wonderfully grim and gritty broken slab of cyberpunk that was Moxyland. Then she went all weird animal spirit and missing persons with Zoo City. Then, just to show off, she went and wrote Shining Girls, one of my favourite urban fantasy/horror/crime stories ever. In fact my girlfriend just finished reading the Mandarin translation, taking a good while to complete it due to it being “too exciting to read before sleeping”. So when I heard her latest, Broken Monsters, had hit the bookshelves I was into the virtual library like a shot and racing to my ebook reader with a brand new bundle of 1s and 0s.

And my first thought was, “Why am I reading a police procedural novel?”

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of crime fiction done well. It’s just that based on past form I was expecting something altogether more fantastic than what seemed to be on offer here. Broken Monsters kicks off in heavy disguise, looking for all the world like a more artistic Silence Of The Lambs. A twisted killer with a penchant for animals and art is stalking the streets of abandoned and broken Detroit. Earnestly trying to both track down the culprit while caring for an increasingly wayward teenage daughter is Detective Versado and a wonderfully fleshed-out assortment of Detroit’s finest.

If there was nothing more to Broken Monsters than a cat-and-mouse then there would be little to lift it above the ranks of airport crime novels but this is Lauren Beukes. The narrative is fragmented into a handful of different viewpoints. Not only do we get to ride along with Versado, her daughter and the killer but we get to experience the viewpoint of some other spanners in the works. First there is the washed-up journalist/author trying to get his career back on track after burning every bridge he could lay his hands on. Thanks to his newly-acquired and ever-so-hip and young DJ girlfriend he’s soon tuned into ‘new media’ and the horde of eyeballs waiting on the other side of a YouTube channel. And then there is the human wreckage of Detroit, represented by a band of homeless friends scraping a living by scouring abandoned buildings for anything salvageable. Inevitably their paths collide in a rather spectacular manner.

One of the key thread in Broken Monsters, alongside the ode to Detroit and the countless other magnificent living ruins in our midst, is the exploration of media sensationalism and the potential for our fascination and hunger to fuel the darker sides of our natures. This isn’t meant in the sense of the patently ridiculous ‘video games and horror movies will turn your children psycho’ trope. Rather it’s about the very real violence we gorge ourselves on every time we turn on the news or open a paper. Living in Taiwan this strikes a very real chord, being surrounded by news stories of teens and young adults going on knife-wielding rampages. Every murder is pored over in sickening detail by every news channel. The pictures run constantly: the bodies; the wailing family; the scornful politicians; the shocked friends. And yet the carnage continues at an ever greater pace. Makes you think…

And of course it wouldn’t be Lauren Beukes unless there was something going on behind the scenes. As soon as you get the sense that this is no ordinary killer, not just a man with a simple screw loose, the novel is elevated from a particularly gripping thriller to an unnerving almost-ghost story, one which refuses to allow simple categories to pin it down. It’s tempting to label it as horror but it is so much more because the horror comes from revealing what is worst about the world around us rather than relying on the unreal elements to bring the dread. Elements from her previous two books are very obvious here (indeed she admitted that she was originally worried that she was just re-writing Shining Girls) but they are melded together with crucial new strands which make this book a logical progression from what she has accomplished before. Shining Girls managed to gather her a pretty sizeable following but hopefully this will be the title which will lead to the acclaim she deserves.

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Katja From The Punk Band by Simon Logan

Katja from the Punk Band by Simon LoganReview: Katja From The Punk Band by Simon Logan (ChiZine Publications, 2010)

Note: Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for providing the ARC of this title.

Never judge a book by it’s cover? Pshaw, worthless advice. It’s a fair bet that any title bearing a glorious image of Rush Limbaugh trampling his godless, commie foes under the feet of his warsteed is not going to be my cup of tea. But the real reason to ignore this advice is not so much that a crappy cover very often does indicate a crappy book (with rare exceptions, eg Last God Standing). No, it’s that it urges you to miss out on the wonderland awaiting you if you catch a glimpse of exciting artwork and dive right out with nary a thought for cover blurb. I’ve been a fan of this style ever since my school friend acquired Soundgarden’s classic Louder Than Love LP on the same grounds.

So it was that I was browsing through NetGalley’s available titles and stumbled across Katja From The Punk Band. Written by one Simon Logan. Nope, never heard of him. Published by ChiZine. Nope, sorry. But an awesome gritty photo of a heavily-pierced, moody girl sporting a mohawk and emblazoned with a Soviet-esque typeface? Yeah, I’ll take it. Something to do with islands and drugs and criminals, I didn’t pay too much attention. It was a good choice.

Katja From The Punk Band is a straight-up thriller with a dark, near-future, urban feel and hints towards sci-fi. The setting is an unnamed island, isolated from the mainland and supplied regularly by a variety of shipping vessels. The island is a grotty place, decaying and overflowing with all manner of undesirable, an air of violence and distrust looming large around every corner. Denizens of the island have seem to fall into two categories: those who are content with carving out their own niche in the industrial squalor and those who just want to get the hell out, although the second option is made nigh-on impossible by tight and unexplained restrictions on travel.

Katja belongs to the latter group. A former junkie and general delinquent, she’s trying to make her way playing bass in her punk band with little hope of the future until her boyfriend(?) Janucsz is ordered by a local drug lord to smuggle a vial of a novel concoction to the mainland. There will be no need to return and he has a plus-one guest pass. Unfortunately things like this never go to plan – well, books would be boring otherwise – and after a violent argument with her man, Katja soon finds herself pursued by two major criminals, one enraged middleman, an addled junkie and her parole officer. All of these problems will disappear if she can only make it to the boat on time and hold on to the precious vial but a lot of bullets stand between her and that goal.

Katja From The Punk Band is further evidence that great surprises lie in the most unsuspecting places. Given that I had zero expectations I rattled through it at a fair old pace, although it is admittedly rather short, and was pleasantly upset to find it ending so soon. I wanted more. The prose is terse and sharp, Logan wastes barely a word and has no time for flowery descriptions or scene-setting. Instead he lets the actions speak for itself, jumping between first-person viewpoints from chapter to chapter and leaping back and forwards in time in cinematic fashion as the narrative demands. Despite his bare-bones approach you get a real feel for the desperation blanketing the island and never feel the need to question its origins or background – it simply is. The cast of Russian names lends weight to the atmosphere, is this is a fantasy world or inspired by some very real enclave in the hidden recesses of the former Soviet empire?

Despite a couple of questionable plot twists and action scenes – the parole officers role in things seemed kinda pointless to me for example – Katja From The Punk Band is a well-written and easily-digested piece of gritty modern urban fiction. There’s apparently a sequel already available, Get Katja, although I’d honestly be more interested to see what author Simon Logan can do when he turns his pen to other subjects. This is never going to win any Booker prizes but definitely worth a look if thrillers, noir and awesome punk anti-heroines are your deal.


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Influx by Daniel Suarez

Influx by Daniel SuarezReview: Influx by Daniel Suarez (Dutton, 2014)

“Mankind was on the moon in the 1960s, Jon. That was half a century ago. Nuclear power. The transistor. The laser. All existed even back then. Do you really think the pinnacle of innovation since that time is Facebook?”

I almost didn’t read this one. Right there on the cover, emblazoned in a starburst, the blurb proclaiming Suarez to be a natural successor to Michael Chrichton. So this is going to be airport fiction by a man whose mind has been warped by climate change denialism? No thanks. Fortunately reviews elsewhere convinced me to give it a chance. And while it may well fall into the ‘holiday read’ category it’s nonetheless a thought-provoking and knowledgeable read.

Influx kicks off in an unassuming research lab being visited by representatives of a concerned group of venture capitalists. It seems Jon Grady and his team have been lax in producing the promised results and their funders are concerned. However their concern is far from warranted. Using their original research as a cover, the assembled crew of scientists have managed to unlock the keys to one of nature’s most fundamental forces, creating a ‘gravity mirror’ with unlimited applications. This is the kind of revolutionary science (explained in brain-smashing detail) which only happens once in a lifetime and changes everything forever afterwards.

Which is a problem. No sooner are the team celebrating than they are visited by a lunatic religious cult. Their mission: to relieve the world of ungodly technology and the humans responsible. Knocked unconscious and shackled atop a massive fertiliser bomb, Grady barely has time to say goodbye to his colleague, the aged Professor Aldcot, before blinding white light tears his world and body apart. And then he’s awake, in a shiny office…

Grady has been targeted by the Bureau of Technology Control, a government department charged with the control and removal of technologies with the power to upset the delicate balance of society. The BTC lives in almost a parallel universe, a hidden world of fusion power and artificial intelligence, faking the deaths of the most creative and cutting-edge scientists, shelving their creations until a suitable and tasking them with further research with virtually unlimited resources. Their remit is ostensibly for the good of mankind but Grady resists, refusing to cooperate with what he sees as an immoral obstacle to human progress. This, it turns out, is a very bad move indeed. The BTC are a more powerful and wide-reaching enemy than he could ever have imagined.

Influx aims to get its hooks into the current conspiratorial, anti-science zeitgeist and very much succeeds. The BTC and its director, the sinister Hendrick, are straight out of a Conspiracy Theory 101 course. In fact I sincerely wonder how many people are going to read this book and say “I told you so! I knew they were out there!”. One could level the charge of picking easy targets at Suarez as after all this is just an extension of the tinfoil hat crew’s alarm call of “If there are so many scientists working on cancer, why isn’t there a cure? They’re keeping it from us and feeding us poison instead!” However Suarez picks up their mixture of ignorance, credulity and general stupidity and proceeds to throw it all into an action-movie blender. The result is a very readable thriller with the perfect balance of plausible science and brainless action to attract a pretty wide audience.

Part of the fun is the sheer level of imagination involved. From the background and complexity of the BTC itself to their fiendish prison, Hibernity, Influx keeps throwing idea after idea at you, but never to the point where you start drowning in them. And the toys, oh my god the toys. We’ve got hover belts, heat rays, even neurological sleep guns. And how much do I want a chain golem?

One first picking up the book I was worried that it was going to stray into Crichton’s recent anti-scientific realms but fortunately Suarez seems to be on the side of sanity. For him the scientists are the heroes and it’s over-reaching government – with the BTC being specifically NSA-like in many of its actions – which are the target of his ire. It’s far from intellectually challenging although it’ll make you stop and think now and again. And the plotholes are too numerous to get into here. But in the end it’s an enjoyably silly read for anyone with even a passing interest in technology and the pace of human progress.

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The Martian by Andy Weir

The Martian by Andy WeirReview: The Martian by Andy Weir (Crown, 2014)

If you haven’t already heard or seen countless reviews raving about The Martian then you’re reading the wrong newspapers, surfing the wrong websites or hanging around the wrong water coolers. And guess what? They’re all right on the button. This is one of the most insanely addictive books I have read for years, and I really mean for years. It was glued to my hands. Don’t even bother reading this review, just go and buy it now, strap yourself into your comfiest chair with a pot of coffee next to you and enjoy the ride. Then come back and see if you agree with me.

Mark Watney is an astronaut privileged with being part of Ares III, the third manned mission to Mars. Part engineer, part botanist, he was selected as much for his personality as his intellect, his sardonic sense of humour helping to bond and calm teammates during times of crisis. Unfortunately he’s also one of the unluckiest beings on the red planet. Mere days after landing the mission is aborted due to a storm, forcing the crew to evacuate from their habitat to the lander vehicle for immediate take-off. En route a detached antenna striked and impales Mark, separating him from the group and causing him to become lost in the swirling sands. The damage to his suit disrupts its signalling ability – the crew now reading zero life signs. After brief but extremely painful deliberation they realise they have no choice but to leave him for dead.

But he’s not dead…

A combination of physics, NASA engineering and extreme coincidence leaves Mark able to return to the habitat they abandoned and, after some minor panic and disaster, restore everything to working order. There’s a minor problem though. He has food. He has water. He has oxygen. But he has enough to last for roughly one year, and the next scheduled mission will be there three years after that. He’s screwed. He’s one tenacious Martian though and refuses to give up, utilising every ounce of problem-solving power he has. NASA doesn’t send idiots into space and Watney’s resourcefulness is the most vital life-saving tool he has. Soon his life coalesces into two distinct priorities – restore some form of communication with Earth and figure out how the hell he’s going to outlast his supplies and avoid unexpected catastrophes for the next 1,300 or so days.

Right, I’m not even going to pretend to find fault with this book. Andy Weir is a bloody masterful writer, dragging you right into the cabin with Watney so it feels like you’re peering over his shoulder at every turn. You’re jumping out of your seat at every minor victory and covering your eyes and groaning when the fates fuck with him. And despite the very technical nature of the problems and solutions involved, Weir takes great pains to make sure it’s accessible to the lay reader as well as interesting to those with some knowledge of the science and mechanics in question.

Comparisons to previous works, especially movies, are easy to make. Yes, it’s Apollo 13 meets Castaway, no doubt about it. It’s MacGyver in space for sure. Hell, anything involving constant peril and/or isolation could be added to the mix. But in the end it’s a truly original story told in a wonderfully engaging way. I honestly can’t think of a single person I know who wouldn’t get something out of this book, whether from its scientific grounding, its sheer enjoyability as a page-turner or from the over-riding message of persistence, endurance and hope running through it from start to finish. It says a lot that Chris Hadfield, star astronaut formerly of the ISS, gave it his own ringing endorsement.

In short, books like The Martian are rare and precious. Read it now before Hollywood does something horrible with the movie rights like giving it to Micheal Bay…

Note – I have since discovered that Weir was initially given the cold shoulder by publishers and released the title for free on his website. Word of mouth led him to create a Kindle (bleurgh) edition for $0.99 and only then did it attract a deal from Crown. I love this, yet more proof that free availability leads to bigger and better things.

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Dead Pig Collector by Warren Ellis

Dead Pig Collector by Warren EllisReview: Dead Pig Collector by Warren Ellis (FSG  Originals, 2013)

Ever wondered how they do it? Those people you hire to execute your spouse, business partner, rival or whoever happens to have stoked the fires of vengeance within you? For starters there’s the dirty deed itself, the taking of a life. Requires something of a detached personality don’t you think? But then there’s the clean-up. I mean just think of the various fibres and fluids composing a human body. We’re wrapped in cloth, bound by skin, motivated by muscle, supported by bone, vitalised by copious amounts of blood, directed by grey matter. And the excreta, don’t forget the excreta. How does one even begin to deal with all of this?

In Dead Pig Collector, Warren Ellis takes us behind the scenes of this most secretive and complex of occupations. Following a day in the life of Mr. Sun we are walked through the aftermath of what happens when sex and business collide. Someone always gets hurt, we know that much. How much pain and what happens next, that’s the question. In this case things take a turn from the unexpected right from the outset but out protagonist, entirely unruffled by his situation, sets about his procedure with an eager spectator in tow.

Weighing in at a mere 40 pages, Dead Pig Collector is more a vignette than anything else, a one-act play drenched in blood, guts and gleeful black humour. Ellis, whose works include the legendary Transmetropolitan comics and, most recently, the wonderfully gritty Gun Machine, has created an immediately believable (and almost likeable) assassin and cleaner in a very brief time. Told entirely in first person narrative, the story puts us right behind his eyes and the ride is alternately chilling and hilarious. Setting and characterisation are kept to the bare bones but the sparse build-up ensures that not a second is wasted on irrelevancies. The result is a lean yet muscular story which squeezes everything it can out of its limited time.

Warren Ellis is already renowned for the gritty, honest feel of his fiction and this outing is no exception. The clinical, process-driven manner in which the titular collector goes about his work both entrances and horrifies, echoing the banality of his namesake Bret Easton Ellis’s creation Patrick Bateman. The ease with which he makes the cleaning and disposal of human remains seem entirely commonplace, while human interaction reeks of unease, is quite staggering. Perhaps most disturbing is the level of authenticity brought to proceedings. The tiniest minutiae of the grisly routine are cast under the spotlight, turning Dead Pig Collector into Corpse Disposal 101 . You have to wonder what exactly Ellis did for money before deciding to pick up a pen…

Anyway, I’ll not spend much longer on this since it’s, well, so short. Buy it, spend a fleeting hour reading it, then replace the victim with your own personal nemesis. Trust me, it’s healthy.


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Filed under Humour, Noir, Thriller

Mockingbird by Chuck Wendig

Mockingbird by Chuck WendigReview: Mockingbird by Chuck Wendig (Angry Robot, 2012)

Mockingbird is the second in the Miriam Black series by Chuck Wendig, following on the heels of 2010’s Blackbird (reviewed here at Mountains Of Instead). Miriam is a loner, an angry and twisted dropout with a healthy disrespect for authority and a venomous tongue. Since her teens she has drifted around the highways of the US, hitching rides and picking up what little money she can to get by. What sets her apart is the fact that any skin-to-skin contact with another person allows her to see, in graphic details and down to the minute, the manner of their eventual death.

The first novel set the background to the tale, describing how Miriam used her power to follow the soon-to-be deceased, looting their corpses when they drop. Having long ago had it demonstrated to her that she could never change the inevitable she discarded any sense of morality and resigned herself to a life alone. Until a certain trucker stepped into her life, causing her to rethink. Cue a kindling romance, an escalating conflict with a sinister criminal and an eventual reason that the future may not be as fixed as she once believed, just so long as the scales remain in balance.

At the start of Mockingbird, Miriam has settled down to life with Louis and is realising what happens when a bird is caged. The monotony of a nine-to-five job, the constant vigilance to ensure she never so much as brushes against another human and the fact of Louis’s job keeping him from her for weeks at a time are wearing her down. Something is about to snap in her when she is saved by a job, suited to her particular talents. …, a friend of Louis working at a school for troubled orphan girls, believes her life is soon to be cut short by cancer and wants to know for sure, freeing herself from the uncertainty and stress. The lure of a cash reward and a chance to use her power is too much to resist and the pair set off. Of course, things are never going to be as straightforward as they seem.

The remainder of Mockingbird turns into a game of cat and mouse with Miriam pitting her wits against a twisted serial killer targeting the charges at …’s school. What should be a routine thriller is given more mileage by the unique nature both of Miriam’s talents, not to mention her tenacious nature, and the depravity of the killer she finds herself squaring off against. Wendig’s characterisation is as strong as ever, giving life to what could easily have been a two-dimensional cast in another author’s hands. Dependable Louis, neurotic … and the slippery PE coach head up a cast of believable characters with plenty potential for interesting interaction.

However, Mockingbird stumbles a bit when it comes to keeping the fires stoked under the plot. In the first novel the balance between Miriam’s inner turmoil and the events unfolding around her was spot-on, allowing the reader inside her head while still keeping thing moving. This second installment spends far too much time wrestling with Miriam’s angst though. What should have just been a secondary plot driver instead takes centre stage and moves Miriam from sympathetic anti-heroine to whining brat. The first half suffers particularly from this, leaving me thinking “Okay, I get it, you feel suffocated and conflicted – just do something about it!” I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to secretly want bad things to happen to your protagonist…

So Mockingbird still ends up with a passing mark. It’s a good read, mindless fodder for holiday time if you prefer your fiction with a darker tinge and some sarcastic bite to it. It’s not perfect and it fails to live up to Wendig’s potential but it still sits head and shoulders above the majority of titles in the genre. One for reading when one requires a guilty pleasure heavy on entertainment and light on substance.

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Crux by Ramez Naam

Crux by Ramez NaamReview: Crux by Ramez Naam (Angry Robot, 2013)

Well I was planning to review Lauren Beukes’s rather stunning Moxyland, but seeing as I just finished this book a few nights ago and it hasn’t yet been published – thanks to Angry Robot for the advance copy – it’s jumping to the head of the queue. Straight off the bat, if you haven’t read Nexus, the precursor to Crux, then there may be little bits of spoiler in here for you. If you have no idea what Nexus is then go read my review, buy it, love it and get Crux on your wishlist.

In Nexus, Ramez Naam constructed a near-future world in which neuroscience has advanced to a remarkable degree. Pioneers of the new technology combine drugs with nanotechnology to radically overhaul the brain’s operating system. This allows for rapid learning, shared experiences and a host of other benefits. Unfortunately, less scrupulous individuals have co-opted these new abilities to suit their own ends, such as turning otherwise normal people into utterly compliant sheep. The resulting furore resulted in international treaties criminalising much research and driving many of the new science’s pioneers underground.

One such pioneer, our hero Kade and his friends Rangan and Ilya, made massive improvements to a drug known as Nexus, finally allowing minds to combine, to communicate directly with each other. To the government though, and the newly formed ERD (Emerging Risks Directorate) in particular, Nexus represented a direct threat to humanity, allowing users to surpass the abilities of modified mankind and potentially resulting in an intra-species war. Infiltrating Kade’s group with a Nexus-modified agent, they blackmail him into turning over the secrets of Nexus and spying on the uncannily intelligent Shu-Yung Su, a leading Chinese neuroscience expert.

Things don’t go quite as planned…


Crux picks up the tale directly where Nexus left off. The ERD’s plan is in tatters. Their agent, Sam, has been turned against them by her own experiences of the beauty and hope which Nexus can offer. Kade has rigged Nexus with back doors which allow him to enter the minds of any users, subverting any ERD attempts to exercise control. He is protected by Feng, a member of the Confucian Fist, China’s first regiment of cloned, augmented super-soldiers. Shu-Yung, revealed to be an uploaded consciousness in a clone body and the first true posthuman, is alive following an ERD assassination attempt but her body did not survive. Instead her mind resides in a supercomputer far under a Shanghai university, raging against both the Americans who attempted to destroy her and the Chinese – including her husband – who now keep her imprisoned.

Elaborating on the disparate plot elements of Nexus, Crux branches off in yet more directions. In America there are the political assassinations being carried out by the PLF (Posthuman Liberation Front) against those in power who have stripped Nexus users of all rights as US citizens. Working within the administration, ostensibly against the PLF as well as Kade and his imprisoned friends, is Dr. Martin Holzmann, now a Nexus user himself and increasingly suffering under the weight of a guilty conscience. His guilt only increases further when he learns that the ERD is not only holding but is also torturing children born to Nexus users, born with the drug already augmenting their developing minds.

Meanwhile in Asia, Kade and Feng are constantly on the run from bounty hunters chasing the sizable cash reward offered by the US for their capture. Suddenly, offering some form of sanctuary, appears the transhuman guru, Shiva Pradash. He seeks Kade for his help to bring Nexus to the people of the world, to give humanity a helping hand on its way to what he sees as the next level of evolution. However, his fixation with gaining access to Kade’s back doors is more than a little troubling. Sam soon ends up on a collision course with them following her experiences tending for orphaned or unwanted Nexus children. And in Shanghai we learn of the true power of posthumans when Shu-Yung’s daughter Ling starts missing her mother a little too much.

So that’s the plot out of the way. How does it actually fare as a novel? Well if you read my Nexus review you’ll know that I consider it a tough act to follow. Perhaps not surprisingly, Crux doesn’t quite hit the mark – but don’t be put off just yet. The two major problems with Crux are slightly contradictory. First off is the pacing. Where Nexus rattled along at breakneck speed from start to finish, Crux seems to constantly get bogged down in details. It’s not so much that there is a lack of action and plot development, it’s just that every vaguely important point is hammered home repeatedly until you’re sick of hearing about it. This detracts from the story itself in a noticeable way and didn’t seem to me to be particularly necessary.

In contrast to the pace issue it seems to me like Naam is trying to cram too many elements into one story, concentrating too much on each individual strand and allowing the whole to suffer as a result. Crux ends up challenging the Song Of Ice And Fire series for the title of “Most Concurrent Threads In A Single Work” and falls into the same trap. By neglecting particular story arcs for too long they seem to have less impact when they return to the forefront.

But is it all bad? Well that’s a resounding “No!”. The technology and the study of its political and social implications remains as engaging as ever. Naam continues his exploration of the potential abuses of drugs like Nexus and delves ever deeper into the government’s possible reaction. Some may claim that his portrayal of the power-hungry and paranoid administration’s crackdown on Kade and his allies is overblown and heavy-handed but recent political events, from the reaction to 9/11 to the Snowden affair, paint a different picture. And far from becoming too biased in his handling of events he takes pains to ensure that he gives airtime to as many different viewpoints as possible. Kade, Sam, Shiva, Shu-Yung, Holzmann, and every other character has their own unique take on Nexus, on where it will lead and what the best moral response entails.

And despite my complaint about the pacing, it must be said that when action does erupt it does so in style. Naam seems to have refined his ability to depict everything from fistfights to full-on assaults. The book’s two action setpieces – furious attacks on a nightclub and an island fortress – erupt in gloriously chaotic and cinematic detail. It can be tricky to follow at times, verging on outright confusion, but this serves to create an even deeper authenticity, the literary equivalent of viewing the scene through the lens of a handheld camcorder. It may be shaky but it’s certainly intense.

To sum up, Crux may not quite live up to the extremely high standard of Nexus but it’s a close-run thing. The problems from which it suffers stem from a lack of judicious editing rather than the content itself and I would love to see a pared-down version with the unnecessary fat trimmed away. It offers a very satisfying continuation of the adventures in Nexus and paves the way for what will hopefully be a near-apocalyptic third installment.

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Lexicon by Max Barry

Lexicon by Max BarryReview: Lexicon by Max Barry (Penguin, 2013)

“Words aren’t just sounds or shapes. They’re meaning. That’s what language is: a protocol for transferring meaning. When you learn English, you train your brain to react in a particular way to particular sounds. As it turns out, the protocol can be hacked.”

Okay, if you know me in the slightest then you will know that the above melting together of linguistics, neuroscience and programming jargon is enough to send me into the throes of a nerdgasm. Max Barry, previously best known for his novel Jennifer Government (now at the top of my reading list), has delivered a novel based on the concept that words can be used like keys, unlocking the doors of our minds. Once those doors are opened and our defences down then we are little more than automata awaiting instruction. It’s certainly a thought-provoking concept, so how does it work?

Lexicon is primarily the story of Emily, a street girl playing on her uncanny ability to read people and using it to part them from their money in illicit games of Find The Lady. Suddenly, one game takes an unexpected twist and, instead of walking off with the winnings, Emily inexplicably finds herself on her knees in a bathroom stall in front of her intended mark. She has failed the test, one she never knew she was taking, and whose reward was a rigorous schooling program and possible induction into the society of the Poets. A clandestine organisation using their knowledge of the hidden power of words to bend others to their will, the Poets are true modern-day magicians. Through her wiles and sheer stubbornness, Emily persuades them to allow her entry to the school.

Her training is not easy. Seemingly at a disadvantage compared to every student, Emily must struggle every step of the way. Her natural curiosity, willful nature and distrust of authority serve to help and hamper her until disaster strikes near the end of her schooling, with terrible consequences.

Running alongside this plot, which is told in a series of flashbacks, is the present day story of Wil. On arriving in America after a long flight from Australia his plans to meet his girlfriend are interrupted by a pair of men intent on abducting him, referring to him as ‘the outlier’. Before he knows it there is a trail of bodies trailing him from the airport, one which grows ever larger as his surviving kidnapper flees from a torrent of apparently brainwashed assailants, some his former colleagues. Strangely these new characters in his world are all named after poets, from his captor Tom Eliot to his nemesis known as Woolf.

What follows is one of those rare novels which deserves the appellation ‘rollercoaster ride’. On very few occasions have I been gripped by a story to this extent. For the record I am not usually a fan of the flashback as a means of unfolding a story. It’s usually handled in a clunky fashion and ends up giving away too much too soon. However, in Lexicon the interplay between flashback and current events is pitched just perfectly, revealing just enough each time to provide a satisfying ‘What the f**k?’ moment and keep the pages turning. In a beautiful touch, each chapter is interspersed with ‘real’ media updates providing the public reaction to events. From news articles to comments on conspiracy theory blogs they do a wonderful job of immersing the reader in the world, adding extra detail and authenticity in a unique way.

Students of linguistics will get a big kick out of the book’s central conceit, the power of words. The secret weapon of the poets is their ability to recognise to which of over a hundred personality types you belong (you will never look at a questionnaire the same way again). This done they can derive a series of words to unlock the various layers of security in your brain, exposing the operating system below and allowing them to tinker. It’s a hacker’s dream, the most powerful computer in the world laid bare by language. Some words, barewords, possess more power than others and their use – central to the book’s plot – can cause the catastrophes cunningly referred to as ‘Babel events’.

If there’s one complaint to be raised against Lexicon – and trust me, it’s hard to come up with one – it’s that the character of Emily could have used some work. It’s not that she isn’t adequately filled out; her back story works and for the most part she’s a sympathetic character. It’s just that she suffers from what I call ‘negativity overload’ – when the darker sides of a protagonist’s personality seem too overblown, leading them to make decisions which just don’t ring true in order to move the plot forward.

Seriously though, the above criticism is so small it barely even qualifies as nit-picking. Lexicon is a fantastic work of fiction which hits all the right buttons for me – engrossing, enjoyable and above all thought-provoking. Barry hits the pacing absolutely perfectly with barely any let-up in the action right through to the satisfying conclusion, only allowing rare pauses for breath between scenes.  If you like intelligent, well-written and thoroughly original science-fiction then you should get yourself to the nearest bookstore (or website) right now and get this book.

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Nexus by Ramez Naam

Nexus by Namez RaamReview: Nexus by Ramez Naam (Angry Robot, 2012)

The mind is a beautiful, wonderful, intricate thing. But it’s also flawed at some fundamental levels. The product of aeons of slapdash evolutionary bodge jobs, it’s inefficient, slow and running far below its potential. But what if we could change all that? Hack the brain, patch its OS, free it from its evolutionary origins and launch it to the next level, Humanity 2.0? What would we be capable of? Would it lead to good, evil or a subtle blend of both? And how would the populace – and more importantly, those in power – react?

Welcome to the world of Nexus, debut novel of Ramez Naam. The Nexus of the title is a new wonder-drug unlike any which have gone before it. Capable of rewiring the brain of the user to produce unbelievable highs, craft total fantasies and enhance the user’s abilities, it understandably draws the ire of governments around the world. Under a harsh new regime, hardwired into law by the fictional Chandler Act and Copenhagen Accord, such ‘threats to humanity’ are criminalised and their research outlawed. However, for some the lure of Nexus’s potential is too much to ignore. Kaden Lane, along with his colleagues Ilya and Rangan, create a nanotech-enhanced version of Nexus, enabling it to literally rewrite the brains underlying systems, remain in the body permanently and even allow direct brain-to-brain contact and control.

Not surprisingly, Kade and company find themselves targeted by the ERD (Emerging Risks Directorate), a government agency which makes today’s NSA appear restrained and rational. Faced with spending the rest of their lives in a deep, dark hole they are forced to cut a deal. Kade agrees to help the ERD, under the guidance of young, bio-enhanced operative Samantha, to infiltrate a Chinese organisation supposedly working on posthuman technology. The tech is the stuff of dreams to idealistic Kade, but to Sam and other zealots in the ERD it represents nothing less than an immediate threat to humanity as a whole.

Before long Kade and Sam are in Bangkok, attending a conference with the underlying goal of securing Kade a research position with Shu Yung-Su, enigmatic scientist and ERD enemy number one. Of course, the unexpected happens and before long they are caught between several factions fighting over the future of humanity and, above all, the Nexus 5 implant carried in Kade’s head.

Nexus may be Ramez Naam’s first novel but it certainly is not his first publication. A respected technologist, involved in the creation of IE and Outlook (yeah, I know…), he recently published More Than Human. Basically a non-fiction primer for Nexus, More Than Human laid down the current state of play as regards neurological research. The levels of technology within our reach right now are simply staggering and make novels like Nexus extremely important.

You see, despite its appearance as a book for tech-junkies dressed up as an action thriller, the core of Nexus deals with the potential of the technology and the reaction towards it. In the characters of Sam and others at the ERD, Naam crafts a chillingly convincing portrait of the fear, ignorance and resulting paranoia at the heart of government. Unable to accept the possibility of everyone having access to technology with the power to fundamentally alter the world, they must assume that it will be used for evil and attempt to shut it down, lock it away forever (except where they decide to use it themselves). In the current climate of oppressive laws and treatment of anyone who refuses to toe the government line as traitors and terrorists, the alarmist line depicted in Nexus rings all too true.

Naam isn’t entirely one-sided though. Despite being clearly in favour of new technologies, and particularly making such advances available to everyone to ensure true democracy, he does illustrate the dangers of going too far to the other extreme. He asks how a world inhabited by humans and posthumans alike would behave. Would both co-exist peacefully or would the gulf in abilities soon lead to a hideous caste war?

The book itself is remarkably well written, especially for someone with Naam’s background. Despite a shaky start it soon finds its feet and fleshes out the main chracters wonderfully. The key players – Kade, Sam and the wonderful Cole Wats – work together beautifully and convincingly. The plot is played out at a good pace, with events intensifying towards a satisfying climax and few loose threads left untied. The action has received some criticism as being overblown and distracting from the central plot but I have to say I loved it. In fact it recalled the epic sequences in Neal Stephenson’s reamde, high praise indeed, although it inevitably lacks Stephenson’s in-depth knowledge of every single subject ever conceived of by mankind.

There were only a couple of things which detracted from Nexus. The first was the language employed at times. In a futuristic, energetic thriller it is more than a little anachronistic to hear a phone referred to as a ‘blasted thing’ or have characters exclaiming ‘Bloody hell!’ This isn’t steampunk. Okay, it raised a smile the first time but seriously Ramez – learn to swear with conviction! Secondly, there was enough cliche in the book to sink a battleship. Some elements, like Sam’s traumatic backstory being mirrored later in the book with roles reversed, were just unbelievably corny. Although counter to this I must vote ‘Confucian Fist’ as the best name for a shady clade of super-soldiers ever.

So, a hearty recommendation for Nexus. It’s a staggeringly good debut novel, by turns sci-fi, thriller, scientific lecture and political diatribe. Somehow it manages to blend these elements almost seamlessly into an addictive whole, one which you will be urging your friends to pick up for months to come.

(Angry Robot have kindly provided me with an advance reading copy of Crux, the upcoming sequel to Nexus. Expect a full review as soon as it’s finished.)

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vN by Madeline Ashby

vN by Madeline AshbyReview: vN by Madeline Ashby (Angry Robot, 2012)

“Being hungry meant being slow. It meant being stupid. It felt like watching each packet of information fly across her consciousness on the wings of a carrier pigeon. But her granny tasted like Moore’s Law made flesh.”

The vN of Madeline Ashby’s futuristic robo-thriller are von Neumann machines, cybernetic beings created to simulate human beings to a remarkable degree of reality. Instantiated with a full array of human emotions – or the behavioural capacity to simulate them – they even form lasting romantic bonds with their creators. Developed by a religious cult to act as servants for those unfortunate enough to be left behind by the Rapture, they evolve with every reproductive cycle (eat, swell, pop out a replica), each generation altering ever so slightly and preserving useful new traits. However, all share the failsafe – should any vN witness a human undergoing any kind of trauma, or even fail to assist a human with any request, their neural circuitry begins to fry. Somewhat more brutal than Asimov had in mind but effective nonetheless. Until Portia comes along…

vN follows Amy, a young-but-old (it’s confusing) machine being raised by her vN mother and human father to have as ‘normal’ a life as possible. Given vN physiology and its rapidly accelerated growth cycle this involves essentially starving her to keep her child-sized for longer, stunting her potential but hopefully allowing her to mature into her capabilities. School presents problems – what to do in an environment when the slightest playground scuffle could render her ‘blue-screened’ – but her parents struggle on. vN reproduction is an asexual affair, rendering her father’s devotion through all this even more remarkable.

The family’s life is shattered when, at Amy’s kindergarten graduation, her estranged vN grandmother Portia appears uninvited, from out of nowhere. In a flash one of Amy’s classmates lies dead on the floor, surrounded by screaming human parents, while Portia attacks her mother, Caroline. Without so much as a thought, Amy’s instincts kick in and she launches herself at the insane matriarch. Lacking the physical power to best her she absorbs her – dissolving her with the concentrated stomach acids caused by her starvation and swallowing her down to finally satisfy her years-old hunger. But Portia lives on inside her, wrestling for control of the suddenly full-grown body and unafraid of the secret which she carries: that she has escaped the shackles of the failsafe and human life has lost all sanctity.

For the rest of vN, Madeline Ashby seems to take a perverse delight in placing Amy in all manner of threatening scenarios. Her mother and father have been arrested and are currently being ‘questioned’. She has no friends, no-one to turn to, and all vN sharing her physical appearance are being rounded up for testing. Mistrusted by human and vN alike, and with a price on her head she must also contend with Portia’s thoughts impinging on her consciousness, goading and teasing her, revealing her past and, when her concentration slips, taking control and wreaking havoc. Seeking any possible way to remove her grandmother’s image from her circuitry she embarks on a quest across America in search of the quasi-mythical vN haven Mecha, fending off everyone from bounty hunters to an army of her aunts (raised and trained by Portia in her image). In her corner she finds friendship in Javier, escaped member of a tree-felling Amazonian clade of vN and a mysterious diet guru who promises both sanctuary and salvation.

Underneath the relentless action of the plot lies a very simple tale about growth and responsibility. How much can we blame our circumstances on those in whose image we have been shaped? Allusions to fathers being akin to programmers and human error being responsible for the flaws in the programs they create abound, yet the story falls down firmly on the other side. We are responsible. We are given the tools to forge ahead and it is up to us to choose the path we follow. Perhaps the programs instilled in us throughout our childhoods are flawed, but one person’s flaw is another’s advantage.

Running side by side is a nod to the problems faced throughout human history by those in any way ‘different’. The crackdown on Amy’s clademates, with vN being chained and carted off to camps for questioning and experimentation purely based on their appearance, may be heavy-handed but is no less effective. Even the classic ‘Uncle Tom’ problem is addressed, with Amy facing resistance from vN and humans alike.

Of course you can ignore all of this and simply read vN in the good old superficial way – as an adrenaline-packed sci-fi action yarn. Madeline Ashby’s debut, despite some slightly iffy world-building and a few inconsistencies here and there, shows her to be a remarkably adept story-teller, possessing a natural flair for creating cliffhangers and conflict. As her credentials as a contributor to such uber-geek blogs as io9 and BoingBoing may suggest she is something of a nerd and the book is peppered with shouts out to modern and classic sci-fi culture, both flagrant and subtle –  it was a joy to discover a fast food outlet’s birthday song rendered as, “This cake is for you. This cake is for you. This cake is no lie. And it’s just for you.” Although perhaps best suited to a young adult audience, especially given the central theme of cutting our umbilical cords, there’s more than enough meat in vN to provide a few days happy reading for most genre fans.

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