The year is 2109. Artificial humans, dubbed "replicants" or "technohumans," are an established part of global society. Created for dangerous specialist jobs, they serve their company for two years, before being granted license to live out their remaining lifespan (ten years in all, before they succumb to the cancer-like process of "Total Techno Tumor," or TTT). In Madrid, Bruna Husky is a combat replicant turned private detective with a little over four years left on the clock (she counts off the days, one by one). As the novel begins, Husky receives a visit from her neighbor, Cata Caín—also a replicant—who attacks her without provocation. Caín accuses Bruna of kidnapping her and turning her from a human into a replicant, then fatally gouges out her own eye. Bruna discovers that Caín had been implanted with doctored memories (all replicants are given twenty years of false memories, despite being created as adults) which caused her to become violent. The race is then on to stem the flow of these adulterated implants before they lead to more deaths.
I'm sure some of this is sounding familiar. Tears in Rain takes its title from Rutger Hauer's final speech as the replicant Roy Batty in Blade Runner (1982), and it's made clear in the novel that the film's influence is what led to the robots of this fictional future being named replicants. But Rosa Montero (an award-winning Spanish journalist; Tears in Rain is not her first foray into SF, but it is only the third of her many books to appear in English) also makes it explicit that her replicants are not the same as Blade Runner's—there's no stronger link between the two texts.
As a result, Blade Runner becomes a general reference point rather than a specific one; its mention prepares us to enter a certain kind of future—a hi-tech, impersonal, flashy yet dingy urban future that exists at the back of our minds as a fictional archetype. It's a future so familiar that Montero barely needs to describe it. A couple of examples:
After the interview with Chi, Bruna went back home on the sky-tram and, before heading back to her apartment, stopped off at the supermarket on the corner to stock up on provisions and buy a new card for purified water. (p. 53)
Above her head, the public screens spilled out the usual stupid messages, juvenile little quips, music clips, personal images from someone's last holiday, or news items covered by amateur journalists. (p. 58)
Sentences like these fade into the background of a science fiction story, rather than bringing us up short; they provide detail, but not texture. It is striking how far images and concepts that could be arresting—such as the banner-like artificial trees compared to "the baleen filter of an enormous whale" (p. 59)—are deadened by the generic material around them. Lilit Žekulin Thwaites's rather flat translation may be partly responsible for this, but I think the novel's structure plays a greater part.
Interspersed among the chapters of standard narrative are extracts from the United States of the Earth's General Archive. These are framed as part of a subplot in which the archivist Yiannis Liberopoulos discovers that official records of history are being altered, but of course they also serve to fill us in on the back-story of Tears in Rain. It's a packed future history, with wars aplenty, the discovery of teleportation and alien species, and political upheaval. Yet, though some of the detail of that history comes through to the main plot, the narrative energy implied by it does not—the story one imagines when reading the historical passages is more vigorous and engaging than the actual story they support.
That story has the shape of a mystery-thriller, but it is not executed particularly well. Bruna may be a detective, but she doesn't seem to do all that much detecting; the plot comes across as a string of meetings with various characters who impart information—and, since most of these characters are male, this also carries the sense of an otherwise capable female protagonist being forced to rely on men to solve her problems. In addition, the identity of the novel's villain is revealed in a particularly clumsy way: the character is introduced into a scene under a name we haven't previously heard (though of course we'd recognize them immediately if we were witnessing events in person), and that name then matched to the individual we know later on. It's a corny way to resolve a mystery.
The plotting issues wouldn't matter quite so much if the characters were compelling, but Tears in Rain falls short here too. As a protagonist, Bruna Husky comes across as largely an empty vessel; her most distinguishing characteristics are that she's a replicant, an alcoholic, and super-tough—but her personality is flat and neutral. The secondary characters don't fare much better, either; individuals who might have helped shake up proceedings—such as Maio, the translucent-bodied, telepathic alien Bruna sleeps with one intoxicated night—are either sidelined in the plot or reduced to generic roles.
In the original Blade Runner quotation, the "tears in rain" are memories. Memory is, of course, central to the plot of Montero's novel—doctored memory implants are what is affecting replicants; and, in the archive subplot, the collective "memory" of the world is being changed. But, though there are gestures towards exploring memory at a subtextual level, that exploration feels superficial. Bruna reflects on what it is to have been brought to life as an adult, and to know that the memories of youth that you carry have been written by someone:
I'm not my memory. Which, moreover, I know is fake. I am my actions and my days. (p. 77)
Then again, a human character suggests, perhaps having an artificial memory is not so different from having a "natural" one:
All memories are lies. We all invent the past. Do you think my parents were really the way I remember them today? (p. 135)
This is fine as far as it goes—but it goes no further, and is hardly digging into the topics of memory and identity. There are a few scenes later on in the novel where Bruna's perception and subjectivity are drawn into question, and here we do have the frisson of disorientation for which the rest of Tears in Rain is crying out. But it is over all too quickly, and we're left with the sub-standard thriller plot. It's a further reminder that this book could have been so much more, if it reached further and didn't cling so tightly to its generic framework.
David Hebblethwaite was born in the north of England, went to university in the Midlands, and now lives in the south. Along the way, he has read a lot of books, and has plenty more to go. He blogs at Follow the Thread.