Blackfish City – Sam J Miller

Blackfish City by Sam J Miller (review copy from Orbit) is a thoughtful near-future thriller.  The floating city of Qaanaq in the Arctic has become a place of refuge in the aftermath of the Climate Wars that have ripped apart the world as we know it.  A huge cultural melting pot of refugees, it is a place where capitalism runs unfettered.  The majority of the wealth is held by a tiny group of people known as shareholders, while the vast majority of people scrape out a living however they can.  But the city is also plagued by a strange, incurable, degenerative disease known as ‘the breaks’ which is passed on by close physical contact.

Life in Qaanaq is disrupted by the arrival of a woman known as the orcamancer.  She appears to be one of a group of people thought to be extinct, who were nanobonded to animals and able to communicate with them.  She is silent – but violent – and the reason for her journey to Qaanaq is unclear.  Four of Qaanaq’s residents are drawn together to unravel the mystery of the orcamancer – Fill, a shareholder’s grandson who has contracted a particularly virulent form of the breaks; Ankit, a staffer for one of the local elected politicians; Soq, a young, gender-fluid messenger with ambitions; and Kaev, who makes his living as a beam fighter (one of Qaanaq’s sports).

There is a satisfying mystery at the heart of Blackfish City, which draws together the four viewpoint characters neatly with a nice, slow reveal.  The world-building is also extremely rich, with Miller having put a huge amount of work into his post-Climate Wars setting.  You can almost smell the fish sauce and hear the sound of the waves while you are reading.  But for all that, this is a book that struggles to rise above those things.  The plotting is extremely slow, particularly at the beginning of the novel.  While Blackfish City is rich and immersive as a reading experience, it fails to deliver much beyond a competent thriller in an innovative and well-constructed setting.

Goodreads rating: 3*

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One Way – S J Morden

S J Morden‘s One Way (review copy from Gollancz) is a serial killer murder mystery set on Mars – but with a strong socialist undercurrent running through it.

Xenosystems Operations has won a government contract to build a scientific research base on Mars.  Like every corporation, they are focused on the bottom line and their profit margin.  So they decide to crew the mission with convicted murderers taken from the prisons one of their sister companies own.  Cheap labour offered a deal, willing to take the risk of a one-way trip to Mars for some purposeful activity instead of a lifetime in solitary confinement.  Prisoners are hand-picked for relevant skills before they ended up in prison (construction, hydroponics, communications, medical skills etc).  They go through a gruelling final selection and training programme before the team is selected.

Frank Kittridge heads that team.  Imprisoned for the murder of his son’s drug dealer, he feels few regrets about the crime he committed, but wants to be a positive example for his son and the ex-wife that divorced him after his conviction.  With a background in construction he is perfectly placed to lead the team building the Mars base.  His nemesis is Brack, the prison guard sent with them to supervise the base construction and keep the team of prisoners in line throughout the build.  Brack is straight from the Gunnery Sergeant Hartman school of motivational leadership.  Brack offers Kittridge a chance to get home if he acts as his eyes and ears, reporting back on the rest of the team.

Kittridge’s team make it to Mars and start building the base.  But strange ‘accidents’ keep happening that end up killing the crew.  Funnily enough, each ‘accident’ happens just after that particular crew member has fulfilled their function, becoming surplus to requirements.  Kittridge realises there is a cold-blooded killer among them, and sets out to solve the mystery before the body count gets higher.

You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to solve this particular murder mystery.  One of the frustrations of One Way is just how predictable the plotting is, with relatively weak characterisation – barely enough to make one care about each victim of the killer.

What does lift One Way from the herd is the way that Kittridge’s story is intercut with material from Xenosystems Operations as they plan the mission and make choices about its design.  We see the very real consequences of decisions to trim costs: in one tense sequence in particular Kittridge barely makes it across the surface of Mars to retrieve equipment vital for the mission.  Where One Way is most compelling is in the way it shows the very real and very human consequences of those corporate decisions.  It acts as a strong warning about the risks of involving private corporations in high risk endeavours like space travel.  It comes as no surprise that the company has little regard for the human team it sends to Mars.

Goodreads rating: 3*

Sweet Dreams – Tricia Sullivan

I’ve had lucid dreams.  Dreams where you know you are dreaming, and can alter the events, rewinding and replaying for a different outcome.  Charlie does that for a living in Sweet Dreams by Tricia Sullivan (review copy from Gollancz).  She is a dreamhacker: paid to go into other people’s dreams to help them overcome phobias and anxiety.  It’s not a job with a big client list, and it doesn’t pay well, but it fits well round the narcolepsy Charlie was left with as a side-effect of a drug trial she participated in while penniless at university.

One of Charlie’s few clients is a famous musician who is suffering from extreme nightmares that are beginning to affect her career.  She is visited each night by The Creeper – a mysterious masked figure determined to cause harm.  When the musician dies one night, Charlie finds herself under investigation for the death, but also the the Creeper’s next target.  Desperate to deal with the Creeper and clear her name, Charlie finds herself uncovering a conspiracy.

Sweet Dreams is a great near-future thriller, looking at themes about the integration of technology in our lives, its increasing sophistication, and how we choose to approach it.

Goodreads rating: 3*

 

Gnomon – Nick Harkaway

Every novel by Nick Harkaway is different, and Gnomon (review copy from William Heinemann) is probably his most ambitious book yet.  This is a complex, multi-layered book that braids together a series of narratives to tell a story about society and our trust in its underlying structures.  Mielikki Neith is the key to piecing all this together.

Neith is the foremost Investigator for The System, the all-seeing and all-knowing system that governs society.  Part panopticon, part the ultimate in participatory direct democracy, it promises government by the people and in their best interests.  It’s the natural evolution of our current world, where we set out the details of our private lives in social media, and monitor our health and bodies with devices like Fitbits.  People today are choosing to self-monitor and share that data with large corporations, without ever questioning whether the offered benefits are worth the potential erosion of privacy.  Harkaway’s System is a society founded on the idea that if one has nothing to hide then one has nothing to fear.  And this is a system that works, for the most part.

Neith is tasked with investigating Diana Hunter.  Hunter is one of the few who has lived a life seeking to opt out of the all-pervasive surveillance of the System.  She has lived quietly on the margins of society, until one day her behaviour is flagged as worthy of concern.  She is brought in for questioning, which in the case of the Sytem means a full brain scan under laboratory conditions.  But Diana Hunter dies under interrogation.  Her brain print is given to Neith as part of the investigation, to find out what she was up to and why she died.

The scan reveals a series of hyper-real narratives that Hunter has used to block the interrogation by masking her own thoughts and memories.  Constantine Kyriakos, the wunderkind banker who escapes a shark attack.  Berihun Bekele, a once-feted pop artist who survived Haile Selassie’s fall in Ethiopia and is retained by his grand-daughter to design a computer game which bears a startling resemblance to elements of the System.  Athenaïs Karthagonensis, a medieval scholar and wise woman mourning her dead son.  Although each story is distinct, they are linked both thematically and in points of detail.  These are arechetypal stories of gods and monsters, drawing on the oldest myths and stories from human civilisation.

Catabasis and apocatastasis are the two recurring themes in Gnomon, featuring in all of the narratives Harkaway sets before us.  They are the primal roots of so many of our stories.  Catabasis: the journey into darkness on a quest for an object, a loved one, or meaning.  Apocatastasis: the ending of a cycle that acts as a reconstitution of the world, often enabling its rebirth in a new direction.

This is not a perfect book.  It’s choppy in parts, and slow to get going.  Like one of Bekele’s painting series you need to stand back and view the whole by layering its component parts.  Harkaway is clearly conscious of the complex task he is putting before the reader, and at times is, if anything, a little too eager to lead the reader by the hand, laying out the trail of breadcrumbs to help understand what he is trying to say.  And there could have been a much easier story to tell.  Harkaway could have used his setting for a lazy polemic about the surveillance society.  But Gnomon reaches for much deeper truths about ourselves, about society, and about the impact of technology upon us all.

Goodreads rating: 5*

The Real-Town Murders – Adam Roberts

Adam Roberts has a reputation for clever, ideas-dense speculative fiction.  His latest novel is The Real-Town Murders (review copy from Gollancz).  The novel is a near-future murder mystery and thriller that opens with a classic locked room mystery: a body is found in the boot of a car fresh off a manufacturing line that is covered by CCTV from start to finish.  A private detective called Alma is retained to investigate.  The investigation leads Alma to become involved in a much wider conspiracy.

Roberts’s setting is a near-future Reading, but one where those who can, and can afford to, live and work in the Shine: virtual worlds that are limited only by a person’s imagination.  Rather than being seduced by the technology, Roberts focused on its implications, particularly for current models of governance based on geography and the nation-state.  What does it mean when the population have no need to travel for work, and can escape the constraints of physical geography into spaces limited only by their imaginations and processing power?  Current pillars of society begin to slowly erode, compete with one another and eat themselves.

Alma is one of the few who doesn’t live in the Shine.  She is at the other extreme – tied to one physical spot with only a limited ability to roam.  Her partner is house-bound and the victim of a virus that is gene-bound to Alma.  Every four hours Alma must be at home to treat her, or her partner will die.  It’s a punishing schedule at the best of times, but one that becomes even more difficult when one is on the run from the law.

As if all of this wasn’t quite enough, Roberts adds a layer of Alfred Hitchcock film references on the top, all updated for his near-future setting.  And no Hitchcock film would be complete without a cameo appearance from the great man himself.

The Real-Town Murders is a great thriller, but it suffers slightly from almost being almost too clever for its own good at times.

Goodreads rating: 4*

From Darkest Skies – Sam Peters

From Darkest Skies is the debut novel from Sam Peters (review copy from Gollancz).  It’s a crime thriller set on a colony world in space.  Agent Keon Rause is newly returned home and investigating the deth from drug overdose of a celebrity, while on the side investigating the death of his wife in a terrorist attack several years previously.

This is solid and dependable stuff.  Think of a mismatched crew of investigators, led by Rause, all with different skills and mysterious backgrounds.  Think of a simple investigation that reveals a major conspiracy that threatens the world.  Think of signs that the wife’s death was not all it appeared to be.  You know what to expect with this kind of thing.

The book does have some interesting aspects to it.  Agent Rause has created an illegal android analogue of his late wife, Alysha, with a personality matrix built from everything that has been recorded of her life, opinions and what she did and believed.  Rause uses it as a comfort as he fails to come to terms with her death.  But it’s an imperfect copy, lacking Alysha’s inner life and deepest thoughts.  The android is unable to help him piece together what motivated Alysha to run away in her final hours of life and find herself on a train that was blown up by terrorists.  From Darkest Skies asks us how well we can ever know a person, even in a world of omni-present social media and surveillance.

Some interesting world-building is hinted at too.  Alien beings called The Masters were responsible for the destruction of large parts of Earth, and for dispersing its population throughout the universe on a number of colony worlds.  This piece of history is only mentioned in passing in this novel, but if offers some fascinating hints of where future books could go.

I will watch with interest to see what Peters comes up with next.  This is a promising debut.

Goodreads rating: 3*

Want You Gone – Chris Brookmyre

Want You Gone is a pitch-perfect thriller from Chris Broomyre (review copy from Little Brown).  In this latest instalment of Brookmyre’s Parlabane novels, Jack is forced to address the twin challenges of cyber crime and online journalism, teaming up with a teenage hacker to uncover a plot to steal a new invention from a major biotechnology company.  Parlabane, increasingly feeling like a dinosaur in the digital age, is under pressure to deliver a big scoop for his new employers, but finds himself an unwitting victim when his hacker collaborator blackmails him into assisting them to break into that company and steal a prototype and plans for an unknown person.

The first thing to say is that this is an impeccably researched novel  Brookmyre really knows his stuff – or has some great research contacts – when it comes to writing about the threat and opportunity posed by the online world.  This is not a Stross or Doctorow style polemic.  It’s an authentic depiction of what is possible and the opportunities created by human folly and social engineering.

There is something wonderful about the odd couple team of Parlabane and Sam Morpeth coming together to solve the case.  Different generations, but both operating on the margins of the law.  Parlabane is more used to physically breaking into buildings to search for evidence for his stories, but Sam is a whizz at breaking into systems to achieve the same thing, without ever needing to pick a lock.  She is an incredibly convincing character: the shy, bullied teenager who escapes from a life of poverty into an online world where her alter ego is a renowned and super-confident hacker.  There are some lovely moments of humour in the novel where one has a solution to a problem the other has been wrestling with for ages.

The plot is full of twists and turns that will completely blindside you, and there are moments of real page-turning peril.  Want You Gone is one of Brookmyre’s best recent works.

Goodreads rating: 4*