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The big lie of American capitalism is that corporations work in their own best interests. In fact they’re constantly doing things that will eventually bring them to their knees. Most of these blunders involve toxic chemicals that any competent chemist should know to be dangerous. They pump these things into the environment and don’t event try to protect themselves.

In the opening pages of Zodiac, Sangaman Taylor snorts a bag of nitrous oxide and he describes the effect as being like having “half of an orgasm backfired in the middle of my brain“. The first time I read Neal Stephenson‘s novel Snow Crash, my reaction was comparable to Sanagaman’s druggy delirium. Here was a writer, I thought, who got *it*. Two years ago I was reading an article about Stephenson in Wired magazine, where in his latest publicity photos the author had begun to resemble a benign monk. His novels have broken out of the cyberpunk genre and his latest series the Baroque Cycle a remarkably ambitious fictionalised account of the history of ‘natural philosophy’.

The man is my guru.

Zodiac, as it happens, is a relatively early book of Stephenson’s, although still bearing the stylistic traces of ambition, humour and erudition so common in his writing.

Sangaman Taylor is a genius-level environmental activist working with a group known as GEE in the Boston area. Where other students that graduated from the same colleges as himself wound up working for the major chemical companies, S.T. became convinced that only he could stand in the way of rampant profiteering and the flagrant breaking of environmental protection laws. Not above snorkeling around punctured effluent pipe-lines, traipsing through sewer tunnels, and then holding the press conference with the chemical samples he manages to obtain, there is nothing he enjoys more than beating the corporate P.R. reps at their own game. Part intellectual Robin Hood cum media darling, S.T. enjoys the fruits of his labour, even if he has to whip the tree-hugging suporters of GEE into line every once and a while.

When a member of a family with connections to the number one polluter of Boston Harbour stands for election, S.T. goes on the warpath. Searching for evidence that connects Alvin Pleshy, nicknamed ‘The Groveler’, directly to the dumping of toxic waste by Basco, S.T. discovers a highly virulent polycarbon chemical present in the waters of the harbour. Lobsters that have absorbed the substance have been left with liquified livers. Humans who come into contact with the water themselves are coming down with a deadly infection, one that was previously seen in Vietnam, where Basco has also run factories. Then there is matter of thugs on S.T.’s trail whenever he visits the harbour in his Zodiac motor boat, a gang of murderous Satanists high on P.C.P., an attempted assassination and a corporate headhunter from a Basco subdivision who wants S.T. on their side.

Through it all S.T. makes sure to make time for beer and Vietnamese food, to keep his thinking fluid. Not even being framed as an ecoterrorist can stop his unwavering drive to put his intelligence to a good cause.

At times this book reads like a lecture on chemistry, with long discussions of covalent bonding and the degrees of toxicity we are exposed to in everyday life. Stephenson makes for an entertaining lecturer though and Sangaman is a witty tourguide on this hellish investigation of corporate irresponsibility. The environmentalist message of this book is ultimately a positive one. One man can turn the tide against systematic abuses of the law through an astute application of intelligence and cunning (it also helps to have a gang of South Boston Irish on hand as well).

There is a near-Pynchonian degree of humour and invective on display here. The book itself may well be described as an ecoterrorist tract, yet it makes a sincere appeal for greater transparency for the sake of the public good.

A punchy, complex and winningly intelligent political thriller, with a strong environmental message. Excellent stuff.

I stared at the leaflet in my hands. CAN A MACHINE SAVE YOUR SOUL? it demanded of me rhetorically. The word ‘machine’ had been printed in script designed to resemble an archaic computer display. ‘Soul’ was in flowing stereographic letters that danced all over the page. I turned over for the answer.

NO!!!!!

Folks before I get started, several folks have let me know there was a problem with yesterday’s post. Apparently the image used at the top of the article did not display properly. Please refresh the page with ‘https:’, to view the post correctly. I’ll have to investigate why the site is not displaying images properly.

Today’s book felt quite familiar for the first half. I realized it was because Richard Morgan‘s brand of intelligent cyberpunk/dystopic futurism reminded me of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. Even the main character, Takeshi Kovacs, is reminiscent of that other book’s protagonist, um, Hiro Protagonist (yes that is his name. Like Joyce’s Stephen Hero, but with ninja hacking skills).

Not only though does Kovacs have kick-ass fighting skills and the conditioning of a cold-blooded military assassin – he is functionally immortal. Which is a good thing too as in the opening pages of Altered Carbon he and partner Sarah are shot to death by a hit-squad.

Reborn in a new body, on an alien planet, Kovacs finds himself acclimatising rapidly. He is an Envoy, a specially engineered soldier, hardwired to be the most efficient killing machine possible. He can consciously control his emotions, how he feels pain, as well as an impressive rate of data retention. In effect he is an unstoppable killer with eidetic memory. Envoys were created to be expendable soldiers who learned from their experiences and could cope psychologically with repeatedly returning to life. Kovacs is relieved to find his new body shares many of the capabilities of his last form on the planet known as Harlan’s World.

Now though, he finds himself on Earth, that moribund birthplace of the expansionist human race. An incredibly wealthy ‘Meth’, which is short for Methuselah and denotes the social standing of a business aristocracy that can afford to have stored clones increasing their lifespan into hundreds of years, has hired Kovacs to solve a murder. His murder in fact, although the police are convinced that it is suicide. Kovacs quickly understands that he is not an employee, or a private contractor in this case. The ‘client’, Laurens Bancroft, effectively owns him. If Kovacs cannot unravel the mystery, the callous Meth can just fling his ‘stack’, the device that stores his personality, right back into storage.

Together with the help of wary cop Kristin Ortega and a sophisticated hotel A.I. named Hendrix who is addicted to guests, Kovacs is on the case. But he is a rogue factor that certain elements would prefer not to get too close to the reasons behind Bancroft’s ‘death’. His Envoy analytical prowess and fighting skills are the only things that give him an edge against assassins with multiple bodies, a duplicitous widow/wife and a criminal mastermind from his past.

Morgan fashions a narrative that is one part Neal Stephenson, one part Charles Stross and one part Raymond Chandler. In effect this is a detective mystery, complete with that favourite trope of mine – the investigator with a much damaged body, except that it is set a far flung future. There is even the requisite femme fatale, a love triangle, chase sequences through derelict streets – this book has it all.

Thankfully, for all its familiarity, Altered Carbon represents not only a well-told story, but an excellent debut from Morgan, who has since spun the guilt-wracked Kovacs into a series of novels. The vectoring of personalities courtesy of clones and a process known as ‘sleeving’, (as in to wear a sleeve) where the original persona of a body is replaced with another, is well sketched. The plot is focused mainly on the exploitation of the poor, with Kovacs blundering through brothels and illegal surgeries, where the bodies and minds of the helpless are stripped apart. The material is bleak, but leaved with Kovacs’ own gallows humour. There is even a fantastic scene with a character split into two bodies debates the progress of the story so far – although to reveal more would spoil the fun.

Thrilling science fiction with a gritty aftertaste.

He turned to the back of the paper, and studied the advertisements. For sale, one Lilliputian, good needleworker. For sale, two Lilliputians, a breeding couple; one hundred and fifty guineas the pair. For sale, stuffed Lilliputian bodies, arranged in poses from the classics: Shakespeare, Milton, Scott. For sale, prime specimen of the famed Intelligent Equines, late of His Majesty’s Second Cognisant Cavalry; this Beast (the lengthy advertisement went on) speaks a tolerable English, but knows mathematics and music to a high level of achievement. Of advanced years, but suitable for stud.

My first exposure to Jonathan Swift was not Gulliver’s Travels, but his satirical essay A Modest Proposal, an attack on the view held by the English that the Irish were a barbarous people. Let’s just say it spoke to me. When I saw the title of Adam Roberts’ book I was intrigued. How would he go about writing a sequel of sorts to Swift’s most famous work? As it turned out his objective was a broader one than that, touching on several authors during the course of the novel.

Abraham Bates credits himself as a moral man, moved by Christian mercy to plead the case of the Lilliputian people enslaved by the British Empire. It is over a century since Lemuel Gulliver returned from the lands of the so-called ‘Pacificans’, his tales leading to an occupation of those wondrous countries by European nations. The ‘little people’, are now reckoned to number only in the thousands across the whole world as a result of this invasion by ‘big folk’. The British Empire owes their great successes since the invasion to the technological skill of the Lilliputians, gifted with powers of invention due to their miniature size that have led to clockwork wonders. Even still Bates is dismayed by their enslavement and is contacted by an agent of France. In exchange for his assistance, he is promised the swift liberation of the Lilliputian slaves and the overthrow of the British Empire at the hands of an alliance between the French and the Church of Rome.

This is also the story of Eleanor, sold into marriage with an industrialist who business thrives on Lilliputian handiwork. Her mother made the match in order to secure her own lifestyle and Eleanor becomes resigned to her fate. She buries herself in the study of the natural sciences, with reading her sole pleasure, a retreat from the cruelties of the world outside her door. One night following her marriage to Mr. Burton, she witnesses an event that she feels might be turned to her advantage, but shortly thereafter the French invade London, with an advance force of Brobdingnagian Giants laying waste to everything in their path.

The French have yet another weapon to hand. A calculating machine, perfected by one Charles Babbage. When Eleanor and Bates meet, they learn that whoever should control this computational device, could decide the course of the war. Together they race across England, unaware that their world is being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s.

If that’s not a broad enough hint, it soon becomes apparent that Swiftly uses its relationship to Gulliver’s Travels as a skin. In reality the book is a parody of H.G. WellesWar of the Worlds. Through this comparison Roberts draws out the similarities between both writers, equal in their criticism of the British Empire and the brutal hidden histories of civilization. The Brobdingnagians marching across the Channel resemble the Martian Tripods of Welles’ book; there is also a sudden outbreak of pestilence across England.

My one complaint is while the period detail is excellent – religion and the fear of committing some social impropriety are straitjackets to each of the characters; the evolutionary theories of Lamarck are rejected as the ‘Pacificans’ are seen to be proof of God’s plan –  I am frustrated with hints of condescension towards the views of sex held by these characters. One of the pleasures of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle of books is that he made the thoughts and actions of historical figures from the 17c seem modern. Here there’s a mocking tone to Eleanor’s discovery of sexuality (she takes out a book from the library of the mating habits of pigs) and Bates’ tortured excitement at his own desires.

While that made me think less of the overall project, the book is gifted with an excellent premise. In keeping with its Anglo-Frankish conflict it swings from Swiftian to Rabelaisian satire. Fascinating.

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