Monday, April 11, 2011

"Equations of Life" by Simon Morden (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

INTRODUCTION: I have vaguely heard of Simon Morden, mostly through his - informative, polite and avoiding the self-important smugness of others there - comments on Torque Control and possibly other related sites, so I was partly intrigued when his Samuil Petrovitch trilogy - Equations of Life, Theories of Flight (check the blurb at your peril since it is quite spoiler-ish for Equations of Life), Degrees of Freedom was announced from Orbit to be published in consecutive month releases, March-June 2011.

To be honest, the blurb below sounded like a try at reviving the dated and almost dead cyberpunk of the 90's, so it was only of middling interest, but I really liked the way Mr. Morden expressed himself in those comments and Equations of Life became a higher priority for me than it would have otherwise been.

"Samuil Petrovitch is a survivor. He survived the nuclear fallout in St. Petersburg and hid in the London Metrozone - the last city in England. He's lived this long because he's a man of rules and logic. For example, getting involved = a bad idea.

But when he stumbles into a kidnapping in progress, he acts without even thinking. Before he can stop himself, he's saved the daughter of the most dangerous man in London. And clearly saving the girl = getting involved. Now, the equation of Petrovitch's life is looking increasingly complex. Russian mobsters + Yakuza + something called the New Machine Jihad = one dead Petrovitch. But Petrovitch has a plan - he always has a plan - he's just not sure it's a good one."

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Equations of Life took me by surprise and I found myself staying way, way too late to finish it in one sitting, so absorbing it was. On the surface the combination of standard cyberpunk/post-apocalyptic stuff seems both done to death and already dated, but this book just grabs one from the first page and never lets go and this is due to the style of the author and to the superb characters he creates:

Petrovitch first and foremost, a young almost-genius physicist, radiation scarred and with a weak heart that may kill him at any sustained effort, but the whole cast which contains Inspector Chain, the detective that investigates the attempted kidnapping mentioned above and related stuff, Sonja, the girl in the blurb, Madeleine, a big and strong young nun/bodyguard, member of a military Catholic order that has license to go armed and protect priests and churches from attacks, Sorenson, a dodgy American businessman and technologist, Oshicora, a very wealthy businessman/gangster/read the book to find out what more, who is an ultra-traditionalist Japanese trying to recreate at least virtually the now sunken under the waves Japan, while Sonja is his daughter with his English wife who is presumed dead in the disaster, his various minions,all Japanese survivors too, rival gangster Marchenko, a Stalin worshiper and gangster boss far-second to Oshicora in influence, who orders the kidnapping and provides lots of comic relief with his minions, Epiphany (Pif) Ekanobi, Petrovitch's fellow true genius scientist on the verge of proving a GUT and many more: assorted gangs, cafe owners, the priest protected by Madeleine...

Set in the 2020's in a future alt-hist diverging from ours in 2002 or so with Armageddon coming around that time - more about it is in the stories available free online - in the London Metrozone which is essentially the main governable part of England at the time, Equations of Life reads like a combination of JC Grimwood superb cyberpunk alt-history series (RedRobe, Remix...) with a dash of PF Hamilton Mandel series - this last one less in setting or tech, but more in general "feel".

So you will find a fast, furious novel with frantic action from the first page. While at first Petrovitch seems an innocuous character, a Russian student sponsored by a wealthy foundation who happens to have a somewhat shady past - though in the crazy world after Armageddon most people have something to hide - that makes him want to keep away from official attention, the author slowly reveals an unexpected depth, including the quite good reason that made Petrovitch take Sonja's hand and run with her when the kidnappers bungled the first attempt.

And from here the storyline is set since Petrovitch's options narrow quickly if he wants to survive the high stakes business he got entangled in and when some strange and seemingly unrelated disasters start affecting the Metrozone, his future looks even bleaker. But he has a plan and when that plan does not quite work the way he expected, he has another...

If there is a negative about Equations of Life (A/A+) is that despite that I enjoyed it a lot for its panache, I still cannot shake the feeling that I would have enjoyed it even more some fifteen years ago since sf moved from there. I plan to read Theories of Flight and Degrees of Freedom soon and review them together in a couple of months and while the trajectory of the second volume seems set from the ending of this one, already in the 50 odd pages I read there are some surprises that I hope will take the series beyond mundane into more interesting sf, so I will reserve a full evaluation until then. I truly hope the series will transcend its limited sub-genre since I really enjoyed the author's style and Petrovitch is just a great character, but three same cyberpunk novels are a little too much for me.