Fiction Reviews

Cowboy Angels

(2007) Paul McAuley, Gollancz, 12.99 / 7.99, trd pbk/ pbk, 390pp, ISBN 978-0-575-07935-9 / 978-0-575-0-8223-6


In 1963 in a version of America, which later becomes known as 'The Real', the first Turing Gate is forced open into an alternate reality. It is only a few microns across, but within three years the scientists have made a gate that a man can pass through. Over the next fifteen years the government explores the neighbouring 'sheaves', finding over 20. Some of them are 'wild sheaves' where Humans never arose, but most feature Americas whose history only diverged from the Real within the last 50 years and, whether National Socialist or Communist, in a lot of the sheaves a nuclear war has taken place. So the government of the Real decide to 'help' all the other Americas and form a pan-dimensional alliance with them. The covert ops necessary to put their kind of government in charge are handled by the Cowboy Angels and everything is going just fine... Until the Real gets a new President of the US who decides that the time for that kind of thing has passed, and from now on its going to all be aid and reconciliation, no more coups. Which is also fine for retired agent Adam Stone in his 'retirement' wild sheaf. But then word comes to him of an old colleague who seems to have turned serial killer, if that's the right term for a man who kills the same person in as many sheaves as they can get to. Tom Waverley is killing a woman who has become a mathematician in every sheaf, and the government want Adam to track him down and find out why. However, when he finally catches up to his friend, with Waverley's daughter in tow, he is told of a fantastic conspiracy designed to alter history. For it seems that the Turing Gates can be used to traverse time as well as dimensions... But Tom is clearly suffering from radiation poisoning; can he be believed and, if so, what can Adam do about it?

It is amusing sometimes to read mainstream thriller writers trying to do their take on science fiction, not least because they most often fail, treating SF as no more than an interesting backdrop rather than as an integral part of the story. So it's so much better to watch the reverse process, when an SF writer (especially one as accomplished as McAuley) turns his attention to the techno-thriller. Yes, to some extent the SF backdrop is still just that, backdrop, and the thrust of this book is very much the thriller element, but the difference is that the SF is used much more intelligently. While the characters run around from continuum to continuum, chasing a nuclear weapon (thrilling stuff, right?), the time travel aspect of the plot plays out adding a level of interest. It turns out the Real, and those within the Real who want to use the technology, only discovered that it was possible when travellers from their future dropped their Gate control in the past, i.e. the Real's present. The control device seems intelligent in its own right, and is certainly not defenseless. It has to be forced to do what the agents want of it. Bits and bobs like this are scattered throughout the novel (and are more interesting in some respect than just an endless parade of continua and their differences), so the SF reader still has something to get their teeth into while the running around and shooting trundles on. I would much rather read an SF author doing a thriller than I would a thriller writer doing SF, and this book is a good example of the reason why. Highly recommended.

Tony Chester

For Jonathan's take see his review of Cowboy Angels.

This was one of Concatenation's top recommended books of 2007, and normally we are good at spotting award nominees...

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