(2010) Gavin Smith, Gollancz, £8.99, pbk, 391pp, ISBN 978-0-575-09410-9
Wham Bam Thank You Mam, to misquote a line from a David Bowie song, but I guess that more than sums up this debut novel from Gavin Smith. You get what it says on the tin, or rather on the blurb of the book with comparisons to Richard Morgan, although this is no Altered Carbon, and not as good as Morgan – yet – but the boy clearly has potential, and is going to be a contender.
Smith was born in Dundee and Dundee plays a large part in this novel given that our hero – Jakob Douglas – lives there, or rather has been put out to pasture there, sitting stewing in a pot of grievances of his own making. Dundee probably does not feature much in the science fiction canon, I am thinking maybe in the works of poet and writer of weird things, W. N. Herbert, or fellow Dundonian, Matt Fitt whose novel 'But and Ben A Go Go' was a science fiction written novel written in Scots, but in Veteran it is clearly grim up North as they say.
We are three hundred years in the future and Jacob Douglas is a former special forces soldier who has been dishonourably discharged for trying to organise a mutiny during his time spent fighting the aliens known as Them, who have been waging war on mankind for the last sixty years. Despite his court martial, he is still on the reserve list and festers away in Dundee, the implants and cyber gadgets at his disposal having been deactivated and no use to him until he gets a call from his former commanding officer, whom he hates telling him that one of Them have got through earth’s defences and crash-landed close by, and it is up to him to locate the alien and kill it. But of course, all is not as it seems, and the invading alien is actually an ambassador looking for peace, but when it is wounded and killed it manages to upload a copy of itself into Morag, a teenage prostitute who also – luckily – seems to be an ace computer hacker. Thus, Jacob and Morag find themselves on the run on a fast-paced, action-packed adventure, picking up comrades as they go along.
The story is told in the first person from Jacob’s viewpoint and rattles along in a cynical, hardboiled fashion. Jakob has a back-story, and his own problems, and when the action (and there is a lot of it), occasionally lets up we are given some flashbacks to show what made Jakob the twisted, wounded man he is. Given his experiences and worldview, he is not exactly PC, especially with his relationship with Morag, but that adds to the fun. And it is funny in places, with smartass wisecracks that get going as Jakob and his gang swell in numbers, unfortunately he does gather them a bit too easily and they tend to linger in the background, and not really contribute to the plot, although I was reminded of Buffy and her Scooby Gang and the crew of Serenity, and there are some well-rounded characters in the form of Mudge, who is a combat journalist with 'issues' and Rannu the Gurkha trooper and Balor the pirate-king of New York.
It is a bit of a kitchen sink world view in that there have been obvious technological advances, and mankind has reached for the stars, but life on earth seems to be pretty awful for most of its citizens, and Jacob seems to find the worst places on his quest. In places I was reminded of Escape from New York, and Mad Max, even Clive Barker, given the moveable city that we encounter. It is kind of comic-bookish, and I did feel I was reading a sort of anti-Flash Gordon story, Flash Gordon seen through a really dark distorted mirror, given the characters, locations, action, and cliff-hangers, but there is just too much of this post-apocalyptic world to visit, or rather wade through with all sorts of guns blazing. That, I think ultimately reveals the flaws in the novel. It is an A to B to C sort of read, with a few red herrings, and detours along the way for some more hard, fast-action with lots of shoot’em ups, and a never-ending supply of energized weapons and a range of fantastic locations like the Rigs (a city made out of old oil rigs), or Crawling Town, or the flooded New York that really do not make much sense. They just seem to be there as convenient backdrops for the action. All in all, Veteran is more than an okay read, yet it could have been tighter and better, but as a blueprint for a computer game that has not been made yet, it is pretty good stuff.
Also see Jonathan's review of the hardback edition of Veteran.
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