Fiction Reviews

Cowboy Angels

(2007) Paul McAuley, Gollancz, 12.99, trdpbk, 425pp, ISBN 978-0-575-0-7935-9


It is the near past, 1981, and the good old US of A is at war to ensure that America becomes the dominant power on Earth, with democracy, freedom and apple pie available to all. Of course America is the dominant power and so mission accomplished... Except that we live in a Moorcock/Everett multiverse with parallel timelines or alternate realities. Alan Turing discovered these parallel worlds and he developed gates through which one can transfer from the 'Real' to these other realities. Yet only in a few of these alternate realities does the American version of freedom and democracy rule the planet. In all too many the US of A was either a backwater nation, overrun by communists, or has had a nuclear attack or whatever. And so the 'Real' America scouts out the alternates, assesses the score, and where needs be equips, and actively helps, 'freedom fighters' to make the America in that particular Earth the supreme power. Those from the 'Real' helping freedom fighters are called 'Cowboy Angels'.

Yet the citizen's of the Real are tired of war and so vote in President Jimmy Carter on a ticket to end war across a score of alternates and to build peace and trade where possible with those 'peaceful' parallels while leaving the others alone. These others, as well as a few of the Cowboy Angels, find this is a betrayal, but the multiverse war is to end and this has been politically ensured by the Church Committee whose investigations uncovered nefarious goings on -- black ops and the ilk -- by some of the Real's secret agencies (especially 'The Company') and military.

Some year's later and former Cowboy Angel Adam Stone is in retirement in a wild sheaf. (A wild sheaf being a reality in which humans never arose and which can be accessed for resources, tourism, hunting and so forth.) Company agents turn up and request him to go back for one last operation. It transpires that a former colleague, Tom Waverly, has been going on a killing spree killing doppels (doppelgangers) of Eileen Stone (a quantum physicist) across alternate realities. Nobody knows why but Tom Waverly did leave a message near one of the murder scenes saying that he would only talk to Adam Stone. As Tom Waverly years earlier had save Adam's life on a mission in a post nuclear America, Tom feels duty-bound to help...

Paul McAuley, though always with at least one foot in the genre, writes in a variety of styles. Recently offerings such as White Devils (2004) and Mind's Eye (2005) have been more thrillers underpinned by a dash of SF than fully-blown science fiction novels. Such titles will have accrued to him a techno-thriller readership in addition to his genre following. Previously he has written the literary acclaimed, hard science fantasy Fairyland (1995), as well as the acclaimed alternate history detective novel Pasquale's Angel (1994). He has done more pure hard SF before, for example with the space operas Secret Harmonies (1989), Eternal Light (1991), Red Dust (1993) and The Secret of Life (2001). These are all very sound tales and have helped establish his by now assured credentials as a solid writer. Yet with Cowboy Angels he has engaged another gear. It is not a question of going 'up' or 'down' a gear as these have connotations of this novel having a different 'better or worse' strength compared with these other works: each have there own qualities. Yes, as with a number of his recent works Cowboy Angels is a thriller, but with this one the SF is there in bucket loads! Let me elucidate.

To start with the publishers have billed Cowboy Angels as Stargate meets 24. Actually it is Sliders meets 24 meets The Twilight Zone. A lesser novelist may have been content to just have a story about alternate worlds and leave it at comparing a few of them, but McAuley develops their interactions in numerous ways (that Sliders for example never did), several as almost throwaway concepts; for example, selling works of art from one sheaf in another (almost invariably in the Real) or using australopithecines as slave labour or (literally) grunt troops. He also has given some thought as to how parallel worlds might work with resonances that cluster alternate realities as if there are chaotic attractors favouring just some and not many others. (So we do not get intelligent dinosaurs ruling the Earth.) Within our human cluster of parallels, not having the real reality as the protagonists' reality was a nice touch: albeit it inevitable setting it in the near past as opposed to the near future. Though this too is a good move as it enables the use of cultural references with which we, the readers, are familiar: one of the protagonist cowboy angels uses the 'Elvis' scale to determine where a particular sheaf is located on the spectrum of alternates within the human cluster. Our own real reality, according to the cowboy angels from the Real, is (I presume) the Nixon Sheaf. True we never got to develop Turing gates (Turing never got to work with Feynman) but we did get to the Moon, which is something the Real never did even though they got cell phones and other goodies before us. (Also coca cola tastes a little sweet in the Nixon (our?) sheaf.)

The other thing is that Cowboy Angels is not just a superbly, fast-paced thriller with an excellently explored SF concept, but two thirds of the way through there is a nice SFnal twist and that too is explored. Enough said, you will have to read it for yourself.

Yes, I could go all arty-farty and say how Cowboy Angels is a science fictional perspective on American post World War II imperialism and, yes, that is obviously there and I am sure that other reviewers will tell you all about that. For me though Cowboy Angels is a sound, hard SF, adventure that does not let go from the first page despite what is, or is not, real. For me, I am not concerned about any possible political message, though relating the story to actual power struggles on the bigger global canvas, and what might have been, does give the novel a decided edge. Cowboy Angels is simply a great SF novel. Furthermore for the scientist into SF it is a timely one what with 2007 being the 50th anniversary year of the Everett III parallel universe paper. Having said that, given Paul McAuley contributed to one of science's celebration of this anniversary, it is surprising that Gollancz did not pick up on this in its launch promotion, but then maybe their sales surveys do not show that many scientists read SF? (Or maybe they were leaving it for Concat to do that for them? (In which case happy to oblige.)) Nonetheless the timing of the novel is very appropriate.

I have in the past said that some of McAuley's works were likely to be nominated for awards. Hopefully this will not be too cocky but with this one I would be hugely surprised not only Cowboy Angels did not only get short-listed or nominated but actually wins a prize or two. Of course I may be wrong. If so you will be well within your rights to request that the rest of the Concat team replace me with a more insightful doppel from another sheaf. Meanwhile Rod Serling's doppel says, 'hi.'

Jonathan Cowie

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

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