There’s an interesting phenomenon that seems to hit some SF writers midcareer. They develop a taste for writing mainstream (or mainstreamish) suspense novels or technothrillers in the manner of Michael Crichton. Dean Koontz went this route so long ago that most people don’t even remember that he had a substantial career as a midlist SF author before becoming a best-selling suspense writer. Gregory Benford tried his hand at a technothriller with Chiller (as by Sterling Blake in 1993) and several of his other novels have moved in that direction as well. Greg Bear seems increasingly enamored of the form. While Darwin’s Radio (1999) and Darwin’s Children (2003) clearly qualified as science fiction, albeit with some of the ambience of thrillers, his last three novels—Vitals (2002), Dead Lines (2004), and Quantico (2005)—have moved more and more clearly into technothriller territory. The subject of this review, Paul McAuley, is yet another SF writer who is following this trend.
McAuley’s first book, the planetary adventure Four Hundred Billion Stars (1988), was a co-winner of the Philip K. Dick Award the year I was on the judging panel. It was soon followed by such novels as Eternal Light (1991), Red Dust (1993), the Arthur C. Clarke and John W. Campbell Award-winning Fairyland (1994), the Sideways Award-winning Pasquale’s Angel (1995), and the Confluence series (1997-1999), each of which was, in its own way, a fine and original work of science fiction. Then something changed. McAuley continued to write books that were recognizably science fictional—witness The Secret of Life (2001), The Whole Wide World (2001), and White Devils (2004)—but they were also novels that were clearly constructed as thrillers. Original and startling scientific ideas were present, but they were increasingly subservient to breakneck pacing and often violent action sequences. And McAuley also began publishing straightforward thrillers—books like Mind’s Eye (2005) and Players (2007)—with only the most limited science fictional content.
Now there’s nothing innately wrong with this, of course, and I’m sure that McAuley has his reasons. He may simply prefer the thriller structure, he may have an easier time selling them, he may even get paid more for writing thrillers with a science fictional ambiance than for writing pure science fiction. So I’m not criticizing the move towards thrillers in and of itself. Unfortunately, however, in McAuley’s case, as in the case of Greg Bear, the result has been less interesting books. Not bad books, you must understand. Simply less interesting ones.
Which brings us to McAuley’s newest novel, Cowboy Angels, or, as one of the back-cover blurbs puts it, "Stargate meets 24."
I’ve been a sucker for parallel universe stories ever since, at the age of twelve or thirteen, I picked up Keith Laumer’s Worlds of the Imperium at the old Kroch’s and Brentano’s in downtown Chicago. The book impressed the heck out of me as, a few years later, did such classics as Asimov’s The Gods Themselves and Zelazny’s Amber novels. Dress up a story with references to Schrödinger’s cat, the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, Hugh Everett, and Richard Feynman, and I’m hooked. Paul McAuley mentions a number of these icons in his new novel, carefully explaining how, in the parallel universe which styles itself the Real, Alan Turing, rather than suffering persecution for his homosexuality in the United Kingdom, emigrated to the United States, where, in 1963, he made the scientific breakthrough that led to the first Turing Gate. The gates allow access to a limited number of alternate universes, a few of which contain no primates at all or nonhuman "apemen," but most of which are very similar to ours, having diverged in their histories only within the last century. These universes (called sheaves) are traditionally identified by some evocative person or thing which was instrumental in creating the small but important difference between them and the Real. Thus there is an American Bund sheaf, where the United States, heavily influenced by the Bund, never entered World War II, and there’s another parallel world which may well be our own, known as the Nixon sheaf.
The main premise that sets up the novel is as follows. Soon after the version of the United States situated in the Real began to carefully explore other sheaves, it discovered that in many of them our country wasn’t doing so well. It had been largely destroyed by nuclear war, had been taken over by the Nazi-like Bund, or had suffered some other calamity. The "Real" United States therefore developed a plan, run by its equivalent of the CIA (the Company), to surreptitiously (and sometimes not so surreptitiously) infiltrate the various parallel Americas and do whatever was necessary (sometimes through a carefully chosen assassination, sometimes through high tech warfare, only occasionally through diplomacy), to help them regain their American glory. Of course what happened was that each of these parallel Americas became in effect an often unwilling client state of the Real, part of the Company-enforced and very costly Pan-American Alliance.
As the novel opens, however, things have gone seriously wrong for the Company. Americans in the Real, tired of the expense of maintaining military dominance, have elected Jimmy Carter president on a peace platform. As might be expected, veteran Company operatives, patriots all, see this as both emasculating and un-American and, as we eventually discover, have hatched a secret plan to return things to the way they used to be, even if it means that millions in several alternate universes must die. Enter our hero, Adam Stone.
Stone is a former cowboy angel. He used to be one of the Company’s star undercover operatives—until, that is, Carter was elected and some of the Company’s blacker deeds were exposed to view. Stone, although loyal to the Company, was more loyal to the rule of law. His testimony before Congress concerning Company excesses blackened his name in the intelligence community and led to his precipitous retirement to a backwater sheaf where for years he has made his living as farmer and hunting guide. Then the inevitable happens. Stone is convinced to return to active service because his old partner and fellow cowboy angel, Tom Waverly, has gone on a killing spree, crossing from sheaf to sheaf and killing all of the doppels, or alternate versions, of a famous physicist. The Company is convinced, they tell Stone, that only he can stop Waverly from killing again, figure out why he’s doing it, and bring his old partner back alive.
Well, that brings us to the end of Chapter One. The rest of the novel, some 380 pages, is both more complex and, unfortunately, somewhat less interesting, at least from a science fictional point of view. It can be summarized fairly easily. "Stargate meets 24." Stone, occasionally on his own, sometimes with Waverly, sometimes with Waverly’s beautiful, red-haired, secret agent daughter, begins a pell-mell, no-holds-barred race back and forth through a dizzying number of Turing Gates, fighting a running series of gun battles, getting the crap beat out of him by various nogoodniks and occasionally returning the favor, following a series of clues, sometimes working with Waverly, sometimes working against him. A couple of characters die more than once, there’s an awful lot of both blood and testosterone on display, and, of course, nothing is what it seems. We get glimpses of a number of tantalizing but sketchily drawn alternate Americas, and I kept wondering about the ape men who periodically seemed to get drafted as remote-controlled soldiers by various bad guys. Cowboy Angels is a very exciting novel, full of action and suspense. It may well be as tightly plotted as Heinlein’s "By His Bootstraps," or it may be full of gaping holes in its plot logic. You can’t actually figure that kind of thing out while reading the book in the way that it demands to be read (that is at high speed and with your critical facilities checked at the door), though I have a feeling that if you slowed down and laid everything out logically, it might fall apart. Perhaps its a Schrödinger’s cat sort of thing.
Ultimately I have to admit that I enjoyed Cowboy Angels, as I’ve enjoyed all of McAuley’s novels. It is, when everything is said and done, a fine adrenaline rush. Still, it isn’t a book I’m likely to reread, like Fairyland or the Confluence series. Nonetheless, I look forward to his next novel, The Quiet War, due out in 2008.
Michael Levy teaches English at an obscure Wisconsin university and is a past president of both the Science Fiction Research Association and the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts.