So I sat down late last night with a copy of Paul McAuley‘s latest SF novel, Cowboy Angels (Pyr Books), with absolutely no preconceived notions. Seriously, none. I had never heard of McAuley before the kind folks at Pyr sent me this book, and I probably would never have glanced twice at the book if they hadn’t.
But they did, and here I am, and dear God this book totally screwed with my mind!
Thanks Pyr, I now have something to torment people who argue online about the meaning behind the movie Inception. Like bear baiting, only far more dangerous.
First off, there are multiple versions of the United States spread across various dimensions. Before you go and yawn and complain about how every single author nowadays is doing something similar (Chris Dolley and Resonance came to mind when I first started reading), bear with me here as I tell you that McAuley has the “Real” America inciting civil wars, populist insurrections and rebuilding after nuclear wars across the various “Americas”.
Whoa, you (and Keanu Reeves) say. That’s what I said when I stopped reading for a minute and really thought about it. McAuley really goes in a direction that nobody has ever thought of before, and goes there with a vengeance.
The book starts off in one such America as our hero, Adam Stone, is with his old partner and buddy Tom Waverly getting ready to kick off a rebellion in one of the Americas. Unfortunately for Waverly’s cause, President Jimmy Carter is insisting upon spreading peace through the other dimensions instead of leading America to a glorious Pan-American Alliance. This, quite naturally, pisses off the clandestine organization called “The Company”, who proceed to go ahead and kick start their revolution in an America which is ruled by Communist dictators. Adam Stone goes through and rescues Tom Waverly before it all hits the fan, getting them both out in the nick of time.
A few years later, Adam is retired and living a quiet life in one of the “wild” Americas, where man doesn’t exist except for those who travelled across to that dimension. Staying with the widow of a good friend and their son, Adam is approached by an old friend from The Company. Reluctant at first, Adam accepts the job after discovering that his old friend and partner, Tom, has killed the same person across six dimensions, called “doppels”.
*warning – this is where the mind-frack begins*
Adam goes into the dimension where Tom is cornered to track him down and find him. With Tom’s estranged daughter Linda tagging along as his partner, Adam eventually finds Tom and they talk about what is going on. Tom admits to Adam that he knew who his parents were, something that the clandestine “Cowboy Angels” of The Company weren’t supposed to know in order to keep them from tracking down their own “Doppels” and causing irreparable harm. Tom then drops a bomb on Adam – he was dying.
After sharing a moment in the shadows of an old house, Tom turns and shoots himself in the head, right in front of Adam. Then the real story begins as Adam tried to piece together what Tom really was working on.
Side note: As alluded by its name, The Company is another version of the CIA in the Real. The cloak and dagger stuff in the book is enough to make your head spin, but it never quite pushes you over the edge of insanity. It allows you to follow the story while simultaneously messing with your head – repeatedly.
*mind-frack beginning in earnest here… you have been warned*
This book is, quite simply, good. It’s a little hard to follow until you realize that they name the alternate America’s after the president or leader of that reality, and it’s much easier to track what’s where after that revelation. The science is sound (I picked over it a little using what little I remember from my long conversations with physicists about alternate realities) and it makes sense, which is easier than just spouting off a bunch of techno babble and saying “understand now?”, which a lot of authors do these days. McAuley manages to explain it to me like I was an idiot (and trust me, I can be when it comes to complex math) without actually talking down to me. Very courteous, I’ll add. That’s one of the reasons David Weber turns me off in his writing at times.
The story wanders around a bit, as you never know who to trust or what to believe. It continues this way right up until the very last page, which is the only time in the entire book I sat up and said “That didn’t make sense”. Everything else? Well, let’s just say if Christopher Nolan (director of Inception) wrote SF, it would be much like what McAuley gave us in Cowboy Angels. It’s fast, gritty, terrifying and wonderful. He really nails the details of the combat scenes (something I always pay attention to) and doesn’t skimp when to mapping out the various worlds our hero is wandering around in.
If you liked Inception, you will love this book. Pick it up. Gift it to someone who you want to lose sleep after reading a book. Laugh at them when they turn to you and say “Wait, what the f***?”. I actually had dreams about this book (I had to quit at 3 am because I was tired, damn it) and when I finished it this morning, I had my very own “WTF?” moment.
–Reviewed by Jason