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Well-written YA neo-pulp
on 1 October 2011
*** Note: this is a review of the three volumes of the trilogy: it was first published at sciencefiction.com. ***
Book 1: Equations of Life
It's London, England after Armageddon. Europe has been nuked by Christian fundamentalists, Russia's a criminal kleptocracy, and America is in the hands of the extreme religious right; Japan has copied Atlantis and has sunk beneath the waves. It seems that every last refugee in the world has found their way to London, every park remade as a container-favela while the streets are an impenetrable tide of the dispossessed, desperate, and merely criminal.
Samuil Petrovitch is a Russian doctoral student (high-energy physics) who dwells in the shanty town where Clapham Common used to be. It's just another morning as he shuffles down the stairs, carefully so as not to catch anyone's eye en-route to his desk at Imperial College. He has survived the mafia wars of St. Petersburg by not getting involved but that's about to change. By happenstance he's at the scene of the attempted kidnapping of a young woman. Reacting fast, he helps her escape and is soon being pursued by the Ukrainian mob, the neo-Yakuzas, and Detective Inspector Chain of the Metropolitan Police. Luckily he has help - from an armored, tooled up Catholic nun. And did I mention that Petrovitch has a heart problem - it keeps stopping?
Morden is a writer who delights in turning your expectations upside down: the gun-toting religious sisters; the urbane and sophisticated Japanese crime boss; the quantum computer with nightmares. He writes punchy dialogue too:
"Is there anything I can do?"
He looked up into her big brown eyes properly, now that no one was trying to kill him. His heart stopped again, only for a moment, but he put it down to his arrhythmia. "If you haven't got a scalpel, some bolt-cutters and a set of rib spreaders, no. The defibrillator that's part of my pacemaker seems to have crashed."
As the Metrozone falls apart and with every criminal organization in Greater London chasing him, Petrovitch still finds the time to help his supervisor, Lagos-born Dr Pif Ekanobi, debug her equations for their Theory of Everything, the long-sought Unified Field Theory incorporating Quantum Gravity which will transform the world - if they can only get it out of network-crashed London.
There's a lot to like about Book 1. Petrovitch is a compelling character and the action is non-stop exciting. I only have a few quibbles: all the violence and rushing around is essentially tactical - a more substantive underlying project for the hero would better sustain and structure our interest; plot credibility sags here and there - practically everyone seems so impressed by our hero's extraordinary brightness that they end up doing whatever he suggests after the merest acquaintanceship; finally, this seems a curiously prim, Hays code take on interpersonal attraction: a touch of the hand, a glance brimming with meaning, a stolen, unlooked-for kiss. Hmmm, maybe it's his heart.
Book 2: Theories of Flight
What a difference a few months makes. Petrovitch now has his doctorate, a new wife and a spinning turbine for a heart. He has also demonstrated antigravity in the labs, a practical consequence of the Ekanobi-Petrovitch equations. But the past is about to re-emerge to haunt all the protagonists of Book 1. The night of violence which ended the first volume - the Long Night - was orchestrated by a rogue sentient AI running on that quantum computer. Petrovitch defeated it but has kept the source code and now the CIA is on his trail with a mission to terminate.
The spy cell's machinations are soon on hold with a major `Outie' attack on the Metrozone. We thought the Greater London of the Metrozone was third-world enough, but it now appears that the whole of southern England outside has been abandoned to a feral underclass, and now they're back to loot and burn. How prescient of the author!
Most of this middle volume of the trilogy is given to a long excursion through the combat zone of North London as Petrovitch struggles to save his wife and defeat the Outies. This latter objective might seem a stretch except that through his rebuilt AI pal, Petrovitch can hack into pretty much any network in the world: satellite and CCTV surveillance, European Defense Force command and control, autonomous vehicle systems. Soon Petrovitch is cybernetically running the show while getting increasingly battered in a series of violent fights with knife-wielding Outies.
The grand finale of volume 2 sees Petrovitch in the flat beneath where CIA operatives are holding his wife, about to deploy a singularity bomb while hypersonic stealth missiles barrel in to take him out.
As we've come to expect, the quality of writing is inventive, the dialogue sharp and the action sequences vivid. Petrovitch is developing as a character, becoming more rounded and humane, although he's struggling with himself.
The odd instance of poor writing got through. On p. 161 the author wants to convey that his character is moving forwards through a train tunnel. This is what he says: `The line between light and dark got closer.' No, that's far too opaque for me.
For a novel featuring a successful Unified Field Theory, the TOE is doing remarkably little heavy lifting for the plot. The singularity bomb (p. 306) is impressive when it detonates.
"Floor, ceiling, walls, the air, even light itself: everything was suddenly jerked by an unseen hand and tried for that briefest of instants to fall into a hole in reality. ... The ceiling kept on coming, meeting the rising floor two meters up, while the supporting walls clapped together in the middle."
Too impressive in fact. As a lower bound, let's suppose the bomb created a gravitational field of 1g at a range of one meter (probably 10g would be needed to do that kind of damage). Using Newton's weak-field approximation to Einstein's field equations, the central mass could not have been less than 150 million tons. Not bad for the Ekanobi-Petrovitch theory - conjuring up a fundamental conservation law violation with a funny spherical device and a couple of nine volt batteries!
Nit-picking aside, at the end of this exciting read a temporary, patched-up stability has been achieved but Petrovitch's own future seems as problematic as ever.
Book 3: Degrees of Freedom
Time has rolled on by almost a year in the Metrozone. Rebuilding is in progress and we're only a few weeks away from elections to install the first real government. Petrovitch is working away on his equations, the next goodie to arrive is unlimited power (how does that work again?). It seems like his only real problem is that for the last eleven months, his wife hasn't been talking to him. And then all hell breaks loose.
A nuclear device is found in Regents Park, but is it a fake? Petrovitch is attacked as he investigates and the bomb vanishes. They're saying it's Petrovitch's bomb and soon he and his supporters are on the run. He's being played, and it seems that for once, his antagonist is smarter than he is.
The plot ramps up: soon we're into stealth assassination teams, inner city nuclear detonation, and global nuclear warfare with an American President who actively welcomes Armageddon.
This final volume is the most exciting and compulsively page-turning of the three, quite unputdownable. It's a better book for intercutting the relentless action with quite moving relationship scenes between Petrovitch and his estranged wife. The political maneuverings too are well done and the hero gets to make some stirringly disrespectful speeches to power.
Author Simon Morden has put together an amazing hero in Sam Petrovitch, consistently the smartest guy in the room and the worst-tempered. Endless combat damage is turning him into a half-cyborg, he lives in augmented reality, not ours, yet still finds space to grow and mature. Not all the loose ends are tied up: Petrovitch repeatedly hints at a hundred-year project underpinned by lots of new science. Hopefully we have not heard the last of Petrovitch and his heavily-armed and entirely female posse.