(2021) Christian Cantrell, Penguin, £8.99, pbk, 392pp, ISBN 978-1-405-93968-3
Set in the near-future, Scorpion offers an entertaining mash-up of time-travel SF with globe-spanning crime caper. The former is laid out from the word go, in the prologue, when a brilliant PhD researcher at CERN's Large Hadron Collider spots a message from the future tucked away in the data. The latter kicks off the story proper with a brutal murder effected via the ‘internet of things’ as a Russian ‘agent of chaos’ finds that her artificial legs are no longer under her control. The action then shifts to CIA analyst Quinn Mitchell, who is likewise brilliant and driven but, of course, haunted by a tragic past. We’re reminded of this rather too often perhaps, and although I appreciate the effort to offer a set of characters that are more fully fleshed out than what we still, sadly, too often find in SF, it does exemplify the somewhat heavy-handed ‘tell, rather than show’ quality of the narrative.
Having finished a term of service with the ‘Nuclear Terrorism Non-Proliferation Task Force’, Mitchell is persuaded to join the hunt for the appropriately monickered ‘Elite Assassin’, who is going around creatively killing a series of apparently unrelated men, women and, disturbingly, even small children. The only clue is a four-digit number left somewhere on the bodies and data – its acquisition, analysis and manipulation – features heavily as a plot-driving device throughout the story, which is not surprising given that the author is a software engineer.
This ingredient of the mix proved to be the most enjoyable and gripping as we follow Mitchell pitting her wits against those of the assassin, until she eventually joins the disparate dots and is able to anticipate their next move. This takes her to The Grid, a micronation exclave just off Doha and the scene where she comes close to becoming a victim herself is tightly executed and genuinely tense. The contrast between the assassin’s smooth transits from private jet to luxury hotel and Mitchell’s economy-class efforts to catch-up is also sharply drawn, with her fretting over expense receipts adding a nice touch of realism.
Less effective, I felt, were the more explicit SF elements. Both the physics and metaphysics of time-travel can get rather murky but here it seemed to be even more so – unnecessarily, in fact, given the overall plot. The book begins with a message from the future transmitted using faster-than-light particles – at least one type of which has long been hypothesised, namely tachyons – and ends with a putative time machine constructed somehow from appropriately massive orbiting globes generating gravitational waves. There’s a thesis to be written on why depictions of time travel devices always seem to involve something revolving, from H. G. Wells’ masterpiece to that 1960s TV series, The Time Tunnel. Here at least there’s some gesture towards it making a kind of sense, although quite how these ripples in space-time are used to send messages to the past is left unclear. Likewise, the familiar paradoxes associated with warnings from the future, much discussed in undergraduate philosophy classes, are simply skipped over: if I get a message telling me that tomorrow I’ll trip over the kerb and sprain my ankle and as a result I decide to stay home, then the circumstances leading to my tripping over the kerb and spraining my ankle won’t occur, which means the message won’t be sent, which means that tomorrow I’ll leave the house, generating the circumstances under which I’ll trip over the kerb, so the message will be sent… A time-worn (ha ha) response is to suggest that influencing the past creates alternate time-lines and that’s what is taken down off the shelf here. However, like all such multiple possibility devices, this has the effect of negating the tension built up previously: why should we care about a character if we know that although they’re going to get wiped out in one time-line, they’ll survive in another?
It is in this context that the twin ingredients of the novel are folded together, as we discover what it is that the Elite Assassin is really up to. To my mind the twist that results is satisfying enough, not least because once revealed it appears entirely plausible. However, further coils are then added, including a device that somehow carves out chunks of space-time but which is built out of everyday items, followed by a spot of cryogenic suspension that takes a body down to ‘zero degrees’ (which is either not nearly cold enough or thermodynamically impossible), to the extent that towards the end I found myself muttering ‘Wait, say what now?!’ at regular intervals. And this applies just as much to the character development, with central figures behaving in ways that just don’t seem to be well-motivated. Even the putative hero, Quinn Mitchell, succumbs to a kind of moral corruption, which, despite the usual ‘ends justify the means’ apologetics, jars with what we were told about her earlier.
As a result, what starts out as a ‘pacey’ read, becomes breathless and bewildering by the end. In general, then, the book has a ‘buy it in an airport and it’ll sustain you through check in, security and a delayed flight’ quality. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, and certainly not when it comes to the sales figures, but I can’t help but feel that with a little authorial restraint it would’ve been a more satisfying overall read.
See also Peter's review of Scorpion.
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