(2015) Jon Wallace, Gollancz, £16.99 / $Can22.99, trdpbk, 250pp, ISBN 978-0-575-11844-7
Kestinbec used to be a Ficial: an artificial human with a high IQ, above average strength, quick reflexes and nanobots circulation that enabled rapid healing. They were better, and more focussed than 'Reals'. However when the world ended, somewhere along the line Kestinbec had his nanobots purged making him – in all but mind – a Real. This was not an ideal condition to be in surviving the aftermath of the world's end beneath a cloud layer and in a nuclear winter. Now he was working with Reals along with his Real comrade Fatty.
But Kestinbec is not happy. He was made for 'construction'. He was made Ficial, and if the Real warlord – who ruled the community with which he was currently living as a kind of mercenary – ever found out then he would be killed for sure.
Before the world ended and the attempted Ficial takeover, Kestinbec has been working on the construction of a tower in SE London. A tower so large it could hose a small town. A tower so tall that it pierced the ash and smoke cloud layer smothering the Earth.
The thing is that Kestinbec let slip to Fatty that near the top of this tower there was a giant pendulum of many tonnes weight that served to dampen any movement the tower might experience, and as a sign of this project's grandeur, this weight had been made of solid gold. But Fatty could not keep a secret if he thought there was profit in it and so had told the warlord of NW Kent. And so Kestinbec and Fatty were off to check out this hoard of gold.
There were though a few problems. Surrounding the tower was a religious throng laying siege to a tower that they thought affronted god. Within the tower there were signs that some people were still alive but nobody knew exactly who as anyone who entered never returned. And as if this were all not enough, there was a soldier Ficial on Kestinbec's trail, a soldier on a mission from Ficial Control to kill Kestinbec for his betrayal of Control. And if you thought your average Ficial was fast, smart and tough, then you really don't want to tangle with a soldier Ficial.
Steeple is a gung-ho, fast-paced romp of a page-turner that simply gallops through an end-of-world dystopia, and is laced with occasional, dry, black humour. It's fantastic stuff. A thriller, but with good SF underpinning. I particularly like the Ficial perspective Wallace tries to impart along with the Real-Ficial conflict. This AI, alternate psychology is something that has not received that much attention from writers. For example, famously Philip K. Dick tended to focus on the similarity of replicants with humans, and Asimov on how to ensure that robots were safe for humans. We rarely get a decent AI psychology perspective, and boy do we humans seem dumb. This strand of the novel does not dominate but it is a sufficiently strong thread to provide interest for those into the way genre tropes develop with each generation of writer. And in addition you get a solid SFnal thriller. What's not to like.
At a pinch Steeple can be read as a stand-alone, but it is in fact the sequel to Barricade and is best read as such. At this point I usually encourage new writers to try something different to see whether their writing has sufficient diversity to generate readership interest to the level to sustain a career. However I do find myself wanting a third outing for Kestinbec albeit with the firm proviso that the overarching story arc of how the Ficial-Real relationship has developed sees an interesting progression. Meanwhile, these first two novels are cracking.
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