(2004) Paul McAuley, Pocket Books, £6.99, pbk, 662pp, ISBN 0-7434-6157-6
This is the 2005 paperback edition of the novel.
Nicholas Hyde is a volunteer worker for a humanitarian charity, documenting recent atrocities from a nasty little war in the Congo (quite prophetic when you reflect on current events in that region though, to be fair, when aren't those guys chopping each other up with machetes?). A supposedly philanthropic multi-national company, Obligate, has taken over most of the country after having paid off their debts. While Hyde is documenting a fresh massacre in a small village, his group are attacked by deformed tool- (and gun-) using white apes, and only he and a government 'observer' escape to tell the tale. Except that nobody seems to want to listen to them, and then the observer retracts his story, leaving Hyde alone to face the lie that his colleagues were killed by a band of child soldiers. Obligate have no interest in helping him; it seems that at least one person high up in the company has their own reasons for wanting to keep everything hushed. Accordingly Hyde sets out on a journey to try to document the existence of the white devils but, along the way, also uncovers their origins and becomes a target of a religious zealot and mercenary for hire. The final revelation about the make-up of the beasts will probably not surprise most SF readers...
McAuley's science thrillers are, on the whole, very good. The scientific speculation is just as captivating as in his many more typical SF books, but at the same time he does not neglect the thriller aspects of the plot. Where many an SF writer seems uncomfortable in that territory, often with an over-reliance on 'co-incidence' or 'luck', McAuley can actually plot a thriller properly and his characters actually observe and deduct and detect. Most refreshing! If I have a criticism of this particular novel, I would say that it seemed that McAuley had a hard time working out just when to end it (though he had the 'how' well covered). It just seemed to drag on a little bit more than it need have done and, consequently, the last quarter of the book isn't quite as fascinating as the previous three-quarters (especially if you have guessed the big revelation ahead of time). But, frankly, that's just a minor quibble; where other SF-thrillers bore, because they seem so arbitrary, McAuley keeps you on board with tight plotting, believable characters, and tautly written action scenes. He has, rightly, attracted a lot of praise, not just from the genre press, but from the mainstream also and, for some at least, seems to be treading in the footsteps of the late Michael Crichton (which, though an over-simplistic comparison, is a reasonable enough observation). I, for one, am happy to read McAuley whether he is writing a thriller or a far-future saga. Long may he continue.
See also Jonathan's review of White Devils.
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