Simon Morden's latest novel, The Curve of the Earth, is set ten years after the events described in his Philip K. Dick Award-winning Petrovitch Trilogy (Equations of Life; Theories of Flight; Degrees of Freedom; all 2011). The new novel features the same curmudgeon physicist, Samuil Petrovitch, now cyborg-ized, and his "infovore" companion A.I., Michael. When I shared this with my girlfriend the other day, she referenced a cartoon from the 1980s I'd never heard of, Jem and the Holograms (1985-1988), which chronicles the adventures of Jerrica Benton (aka Jem) and her holographic computer, Synergy. The show's theme-song kicks off with the following lyrics, set to the tune of a spunky 80s pop melody: "Jem . . . Jem is truly outrageous / Truly, truly, truly outrageous." Substitute Jem's name for Sam's, and you've got the general idea.
In the original trilogy (which I have not read), Sam, in a sort of post-apocalyptic London called the Metrozone, led a revolution that helped establish the Freezone. But you don't need to worry too much about these previous events, as Morden inserts just enough catch-up exposition where needed. Also, much of the current novel's action unfolds in a highly repressed and homogenized "Reconstructionist" USA outside of the Freezone. More on this later.
The plot involves Sam's search for his adopted daughter Lucy, who disappears in the midst of some auroral research in Alaska. Sam is assigned an FBI agent, Joseph Newcomen, to help him locate her. Outrageous shenanigans ensue, involving hacking, butt-whooping, and government conspiracies in just about equal measure. Remember how in Firefly they would curse in Mandarin Chinese? Similarly, The Curve of the Earth's events are all enlivened by Sam's constant swearing in Russian. Without giving away important plot specifics, I'll say that Sam manages to solve the mystery of Lucy's disappearance, blowing up a lot of stuff en route, but what he uncovers only leads to more questions (which will presumably be answered in the next two volumes of this new trilogy-in-the-making).
The short of it is that Morden's novel is an entertaining, highly irreverent quest travelogue through an imaginatively created near future, peopled with memorable and highly idiosyncratic characters who thoroughly believe in the rightness of their cause. Morden, in the manner of Charles Stross and Richard K. Morgan, makes deft use of extrapolated technology to lend both strangeness and verisimilitude to his world, thus making it immersive, as well as oftentimes satirical. Cyberpunk-ish tropes appear with certain regularity: info-shades, for example, or the "information wants to be free" slogan.
But these details are what I tend to think of as surface work. Substrate inventiveness—genuinely radical visions of social or philosophical alterity, married with visionary, scientific what-ifs—is scanter. Though the novel's final revelation does inject the proceedings with a more genuinely SFnal sense of wonder, the novel, on the whole, feels more like a series of fun, well-staged narrative set pieces on cyber-steroids. Since I've been talking about Morden's world, which is probably as important a part of his novel as the characters that inhabit it, let me elaborate a little on the "Reconstructionist" USA I mentioned earlier.
Our first descriptive encounter with it occurs in Chapter 1, when we're told about "the Americans and their ultra-conservative, hyper-patriotic, quasi-fascistic, crypto-theocratic Reconstructionist government" (p. 2), an adjectival string that, perhaps a bit heavy-handedly, reoccurs several more times throughout. By Chapter 7, we learn of this America's appearance (italics mine):
He was thin enough to slip through any available gap, unencumbered and light on his feet, almost elfin against the gen-engineered body shapes of the locals. Everybody's parents had gone for height. If they'd selected a boy, they'd gone for muscle and bulk; a girl meant either Midwestern natural or Californian beach. (p. 61)
This quote serves to illustrate not only how Americans look, but also how Morden builds his world: he consistently adheres to the stranger-in-a-strange-land technique, and it serves him well. The reason I italicized "unencumbered and light on his feet" is that the phrase aptly summarizes Sam's great advantage over the natives: he's physically fast, yes, but also mentally nimble, willing to think outside the box, ready to make quick decisions and take big risks.
Now consider the following passage, from Chapter 11:
"your news is little more than wholly transparent propaganda, and has been for over three decades—but you swallow up every last lie because the guy in the suit tells you to."
. . . "Your generation knows less about the world than even our parents did, and most of them knew jack. . . . As a nation you've bought into a massive consensual hallucination: that you're the chosen people, that your country has a God-given right to stride the globe like a demented colossus, and anything, anything at all that you do is justifiable because it's you doing it." (p. 97)
This quote is excerpted from a conversation between Sam and Newcomen, and provides a flavor of Sam's ongoing critique of Reconstructionist USA. In the same conversation Sam describes how former president Mackensie authorized assassinations and the use of a nuclear weapon in a populated city just to get at Sam and his A.I. Sam thus (perhaps not deliberately) makes clear that at least some of his antipathy towards Reconstructionist USA stems from his own subjective experiences rather than philosophical differences of opinion.
Much of the novel's dramatic tension, beyond the immediate physical peril in which, with clockwork regularity, Sam and his reluctant partner Newcomen find themselves, derives from their clash of personalities, a reflection of their values and worldviews. (Think buddy cop film, except one of the cops is an old Zen master with a bad attitude, and the other is a brainwashed young grasshopper.) This leads to ongoing exchanges like the above, in which Sam sarcastically deconstructs Newcomen's society and beliefs in what is ultimately an attempt to challenge him and expand his consciousness. For a novel that's about 370 pages long, it's surprising how much of it relies on the chemistry between just these two characters. After a while Sam's relentless, expletive-laden digs and jabs can be a bit desensitizing. But for the most part—particularly when Newcomen is able to challenge Sam back, and get him to pause his righteous bravado for just a second and actually be thoughtful—the interplay is highly effective. Morden also conveys Sam's more empathetic feelings towards Newcomen with several amusing sub-plots, like when Sam uses his vast, almost God-like resources to help Newcomen make a Valentine's date with his girlfriend Christine, an event which various nefarious forces have attempted to prevent. On the whole, not only is the relationship between the two well-handled but, to Morden's storytelling credit, it feels essential to the plot.
Further, if what I've shared makes Sam sound like he needs to get off his high horse, let me assure you he is more complex and fully realized than that. His search for Lucy, motivated by a profound sense of love and responsibility, and his relationships with others in his inner circle, like his wife Maddy, provide a humanizing balance.
But perhaps Morden's greatest accomplishment in Sam, other than his sheer entertainment value, is his elaboration of a protagonist who is "never much one for moral relativism" (p. 141) but is also "more comfortable with moral ambiguity than . . . with laser-like certainty" (p. 167): in other words, someone who is willing to believe that something is either right or wrong, and says so (often at the top of his voice), while simultaneously allowing for the possibility that he might be in error. This, I believe, is one of the underlying sources of Sam's vulnerability and richness as a character. Well, that, and the fact that he has a robotic liver that allows him to metabolize alcohol just as quickly as he downs it, which I think would make him an ideal drinking companion for Futurama's Bender. (Yobany stos, I'd like to see that crossover).
Roughly halfway through the novel Sam reveals that he has worked out the mathematics necessary to build a "star drive," and that he's extremely close to solving the associated engineering problems. I hope Morden develops this storyline in future volumes, and combines the more panoramic possibilities of space opera with all of the diverting characters and ideas he's already brought to life.
Alvaro Zinos-Amaro is the co-author, with Robert Silverberg, of When the Blue Shift Comes, a Stellar Guild series team-up published by Phoenix Pick (Nov 2012). Alvaro has also published short fiction, reviews, essays and interviews in a variety of markets. He is still, however, waiting for his Aineko.