(2020) Adrian Tchaikovsky, Ad Astra - Head of Zeus, £18.99, hrdbk, 389pp, ISBN 978-1-800-24154-1
Bear Head is the latest from prolific UK writer Adrian Tchaikovsky, and it’s completely different in style and tone to recent Tchaikovsky novels like Children of Time and The Doors of Eden. It’s a sequel to 2017’s Dogs of War, which should give you an idea of what to expect, though this novel works perfectly well as a standalone. It’s set on Mars in a relatively near future world where ‘bioforms’ (enhanced animals) do most of the hard work and where humans can rent out unused head space as data storage.
Jimmy Marten is a loser and an addict and gladly rents out his skull to a substantial illegal data drop, but instead of passive storage that shouldn’t warrant more than a headache he finds he’s sharing space with the downloaded consciousness of a female bear bioform – and she’s talking to him. Not any old bear – it may be called ‘Honey’ but it’s super-bright bioform civil rights activist and is on a mission to make contact with other entities who also want to colonise Mars – the ‘bees’.
Jimmy’s helping build a city in Mars’ Hellas Crater when his head gets crammed with Honey, who wants to make contact with the ‘Bees’. The bioforms are hardwired for obedience but those controls are weakening so there’s a push for them to ‘collared’ (behaviours inhibitors) so they can be controlled. Back on Earth there’s a loose-cannon politician, Warner S. Thompson, anxious to suppress whatever civil rights he can find, bioform or human.
This is a fast-paced, two-planet, head romp with plenty of humour and more than a smattering of cyber-punk. It’s more than a tad political too, touching on legal rights, abuse of power, control and suppression. Thompson a nightmare but not entirely implausible, and his desire to collar all bioforms to ‘protect’ humans is all too plausible, and why stop at bioforms? So he uses collar control to ensure the loyalty and blind obedience of his assistant, point of view character Carole Springer, and she’s not happy.
The snarky snapping between Jimmy and his head companion Honey is a delight and the narcissistic politico Thompson is a suitably close to home nightmare. Largely fun and thoughtful, though occasionally gruesome and unsettling.
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