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Book Review #4, by Eric Weeks

April 26, 1998
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"Voice of the Whirlwind" by Walter Jon Williams, Tor Books, 1987.

What a great premise for a cyberpunk book: Steward is a clone of the previous Steward, but his memories are 15 years out of date. The "Alpha" Steward was killed recently and the main character "Beta" Steward is a resurrected clone, who finds that the Alpha's memories were last updated 15 years ago. The current Steward spends the book trying to determine exactly how and why Alpha was killed, and also determining what he wants to do about it, if anything.

The book only has Steward as a main character, and he's a great character. His training (or rather, the original Steward's training 15 years ago) is as a mercenary, and he is quite street smart. In the past 15 years, the Alpha Steward was abandoned by his employers in a brutish war, and after the war was picked up to be part of the security for various policorps (a policorp is a cross between a company and an independent political country -- but basically a typical cyberpunk genre corporation). As the book goes along, Steward gradually learns what has happened in the 15 years since his memories were recorded, and untangles the plot that killed the Alpha. However, the current Steward may also be caught up in a larger plot... random events in the book are gradually shown to have meaning. A lot of Steward's actions (both the Alpha and the clone) are driven by a quasi-Zen philosophy, which really enhances Steward's character. Williams also makes it quite clear that this Zen philosophy may not be the most useful; the book shows that this philosophy has been used in the past to manipulate Steward.

The only difficulty I had with the book was the tangled web of the policorps. The basic story spans three time periods: the war, the death of the Alpha, and Steward's current investigation of that death. Various policorps have been involved in each of these time periods, and some of them have dissolved or reformed or purchased others or whatever from one time period to the next. For example, it was confusing keeping track of "Coherent Light," "Brighter Suns," and "Starbright," three similarly named but distinct policorps, among many others. However, I found this to be one of the most enjoyable cyberpunk books I've read. The plots of the various policorps are truly complex and grand, as should be the case in a cyberpunk book. Also, I haven't even mentioned yet that an important element is an alien race which is involved in all three of the time periods and plots. The alien race adds a good twist onto the book, without dominating the plot. What I like best about Williams' books are that they never fail to be fresh; this book is definitely cyberpunk, but also definitely unique. I almost decided to give it four stars, but I'll be conservative and give it 3 1/2 stars.

"A Scanner Darkly" by Philip K. Dick, Ballatine Books, 1977.

This book has very few science fictional elements in it. Published in 1977, the story takes place in 1994. The main futuristic twists are a new illegal drug addicting the United States, a special suit which allows undercover cops to be completely anonymous, and hologrammatic scanners used by the cops for surveillance. For this book, the most important element is the suit for undercover cops; this suit allows them to be anonymous when they are reporting to their superior officers. Widespread corruption in the police department makes it essential to provide safety to the undercover cops, and it is safest when nobody in the police department knows who the undercover cop is. However, this leads to tricky situations, such as when Bob Arctor the anonymous undercover cop is told by the police to investigate Bob Arctor the dope pusher.

This situation is a great one for Dick to write. Add into the mix the facts that Arctor has been taking a few too many drugs and is on a downward spiral. This book is primarily an examination of what drug use can do to people, as Dick makes clear in the Author's Note at the end of the book, although as he says "there is no moral in this novel." Dick is of course a good person to write about such topics. Several of the characters in the book are based on people Dick has known, according to the Author's Note. The story is entertaining, funny at several places, and the ending of this book is satisfying. While there is not much science fiction in this book, certainly the central concept of having an undercover cop investigate himself and bug his own house is a good sf concept and makes for a good book. I should point out though that this is not the "what does it mean to be human?" or "what is reality?" sort of plot that Dick is best known for. I give it 3 stars. It's definitely a good book to read if you've never read Dick before, although perhaps starting with one of Dick's more science fictional books might be more appealing. If you are already a fan, I definitely recommend reading this book: you should add half a star to my rating if you're a PKD fan.

A special note: I recently found 6 PKDick novels I hadn't read before in a used bookstore; probably in a month or so I'll try to group a bunch of their reviews together.

"The Man in the Maze," by Robert Silverberg, Avon Books, 1969.

Over a million years ago, aliens built a vast city full of deadly traps and roving dangerous beasts, with only one safe path to the middle. The builders are long gone, but the traps still work, and the beasts still rove. Richard Muller is the only person who has ever successfully bypassed all of the traps; he now lives at the center of the city, alone. Charles Boardman and Ned Rawlins must become the next people to pass through the maze, and convince Muller to leave with them. The maze is the easy part (although its exploration is entertaining). The hard part is persuading Muller to leave the maze, as he has many good reasons to stay.

The most interesting character in the book is the maze, but this is not meant to slight the humans; Silverberg has done an excellent job making the maze alien. We see the city as Boardman and Rawlins explore it, but never learn any more clues to the city's origin. However, the book is not about exploration of a maze. Instead, the book revolves around deep questions of ethics and humanity. Muller's reason for originally entering the maze is that he psychically radiates negative emotions, making it extremely unpleasant for other people to be around him. Because of this, he has voluntarily exiled himself to the maze, and has become misanthropic. Boardman is a cynical man who manipulates people, and is in fact partially responsible for Muller's condition. Rawlins is a standard young and naive character, brought to the maze by Boardman to help lure Muller out of the maze.

What justifications can persuade Muller to voluntarily leave the maze, to help other people? What can Boardman and Rawlins do to get Muller to leave the maze -- do the ends justify the means? Is the universe a cold harsh place, or does it become that way through the shortcomings of the human race? All of these questions are dealt with in intelligent ways. My one criticism of the book is that the answers and actions of the characters are somewhat predictable, but this does not detract from enjoying the discussions between the three men and seeing the scenery of the maze. This is a 3 star book; enjoyable, interesting, thought-provoking, and a solid ending.