Ack-Ack Macaque by Gareth L Powell is a fast-paced thriller about cybernetic enhancement and sentient personhood. The title character is the star of an online game about a wise-cracking, rum-drinking, cigar-smoking monkey, who is an ace Spitfire pilot in an alternative WW2 world. Although commonly believed to be a sophisticated AI, it turns out that he is a monkey who has been ‘uplifted’ with brain enhancements and imprinted with an artificial personality and history before being hard-wired into the game.
That game is run by Celeste Technologies, a shadowy company run by the Duchess of Brittany, wife of the current ruler of a UK that includes France and Norway. Her husband was critically injured in a grenade attack that is widely believed to have been committed by republican terrorists. Her son Merovech is a reluctant prince, constricted by duty and protocol.
The story opens with the murder of Paul, an employee of Celeste technologies and the estranged husband of former journalist Victoria Valois. She is called to the murder scene, where she learns that he is the latest victim of a serial killer who has been brutally murdering people, removing their brains and the technology that provides a back up of their personality, thoughts and memories. But while at the crime scene, Victoria is herself attacked by the killer.
Victoria teams up with Prince Merovech, Ack-Ack Macaque (who has been liberated from Celeste’s labs by AI liberation activists), the Prince’s girlfriend Julie, a hacker called K8 and Victoria’s godfather, the owner and operator of an airship called the Tereshkova. Together, they uncover a global conspiracy to usurp the throne and trigger an apocalyptic war with China.
What follows is a fun and pacey thriller. It has a strong start, posing questions about technological change and how we define sentience and personhood. Ack-Ack Macaque is an incredibly charismatic character, but it does feel like the story was created to allow him to feature. The plot wobbles a bit in the second half of the book. There’s a bit too much deus ex machina for me, yet another example of the tiresome and overused trope of threatening women with sexual violence, and characters who become pantomime Bond-style villains. But it’s a tremendously fun read.
Goodreads rating: 3*