(2010) Ian Whates, Solaris, £7.99, pbk 334pp, ISBN 978-1-906-73564-7
The Noise Within is a pirate starship which attacks liners and pleasure cruisers; she describes herself as 'out of your worst nightmares', but does not commit any actual atrocities. In her first attack she takes a few prisoners and the target ship itself for ransom, considerately leaving the other passengers and crew in lifeboats which “would support the whole party for several weeks, and this was not so far off the beaten track that they wouldn’t be discovered before then, particularly given the strength of the lifeboats’ distress beacons”. Nightmarish indeed! But it does at least encourage other ships to surrender without a struggle. It is not confirmed until p.147 that the liner and the hostages have been returned for large payments, and not obvious even then who benefits, since The Noise Within has long since been identified as a missing ship run by a unique artificial intelligence. All of which tells us that the piracy is only a hook on which to hang the action that the book's cover promises.
Most of that action centres on Leyton, a covert operations specialist detailed to hunt down the pirate ship. In his first action sequence, he is paired with an intelligent gun, which plays a major part in the second one – a long combat sequence which does little to advance the plot. Meanwhile Kyle, a bored spaceman who took the opportunity to jump ship for The Noise Within, finds himself even more bored once he is on it. Philip Kaufman, son of The Noise Within’s original creator, has made his home world too hot for him by spying on his competitors with his electronic persona; and all three end up on Frysworld, in a township lifted straight from contemporary Mexico, for little better reason than that the plot requires them to be there. Cue another set piece violent incident, to get Leyton aboard the ship, while Kaufman has only to announce his identity to achieve the same – and where it turns out that the piracy is only a device for the ship’s AI to get something it wants – leading to a prolonged space battle at a habitat called New Paris, with, once again, minimal loss of life, and peaceful contact with nonhumans at the end of it.
At that point the assassin following Kaufman catches up with him, and is taken out by Leyton. Throughout all this, an agent from another group, who are convinced that contact with non-humans means destruction for mankind, is making her way towards the action….
The novel is not promoted as the first of a series, but female agent arrives just in time to put the bite on Leyton in a blatant lead to a sequel, and there the novel ends without resolving any of the underlying issues.
Given that all this is taking place so far in the future that nobody remembers why Kaufman’s Homeworld is called that, it all seems far too near-term for me – and not helped by lapses into contemporary idioms: 'the place was in need of a lick of paint', p.193, 'try sitting on your jacksie', p.333. The jacket claims that in this novel 24 meets Starship Troopers, Mack Reynolds, Edmond Hamilton and Iain Banks, which would be one heck of an accomplishment. For me, though, it lacks the urgency of the first, the desperation of the second, the political and social commentary of the third, the sense of wonder of the fourth, and the sheer imagination of the fifth. I am seldom in favour of jacket quotes which compare one writer to another, let alone to five or more – they build up expectations which are rarely fulfilled.
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