Cowboy Angels by Paul McAuley
Published by Gollancz, September 2007
320 pages (ARC Copy: 425 pages)
I’ve mentioned it a couple of times in recent reviews that the idea of quantum universes is very popular with SF writers at the moment. With authors such as Ian McDonald and Justina Robson, we can now add Paul McAuley.
Cowboy Angels is an entertaining thriller that, on first reading, would not seem out of place in a lot of recent techno-blockbusters: say, a Tom Clancy novel. It involves all of the expected substance of a military-based book – army deployments, martial manoeuvres, weapons technology, and armed engagements. For some that would be enough. However, what elevates this book is that the story and the characters within it move across quantum universes. There’s not just one America, but hundreds, all spread across the quanta. As well as the one the characters are from (called here ‘The Real’) there’s also a communist run America, an America where fascist governments rule, a post-nuclear war America and so on.
The lead character here is Adam Stone. Adam is a Cowboy Angel, one of a group of soldiers whose job is to covertly engage with the opposition, not just here in the Real but also with other alternate Americas. By doing so, the ideals of ‘Real’ America – truth, justice and the American way, if you like – are spread and maintained across all alternate histories.
When the book starts, it is 1981. By this point, the project to bring all Americas up to standard, known as SWIFT SWORD, has been going on since the Sixties, but the decision (a choice seen by the military as short-sighted and unwise) by the recently appointed President Carter of a reduction in alternate multiverse activities, leads to men objecting, retiring or shifted to other duties. On voluntary retirement, Adam is co-opted to find an old colleague, Tom Waverly, who he owes his life to but who has gone walkabout through the alternate worlds. Mysteriously each world Tom visits involves him killing an unknown mathematician, Eileen Barrie. Adam’s responsibility, as an old friend and ex-colleague, is to stop the killings, find Tom and bring him back. However, as Adam searches for Waverly, he discovers that there are bigger secrets – ones that may involve changes of a bigger scale.
If you look through SF history you will often find comments that the growth of space exploration (and the resulting SF that was written) echoed a deep-seated desire to expand, colonise and make progress. Paul has expanded this idea gloriously here. What if America could not only be a superpower here but elsewhere or even elsewhen? What would it be like to live in a predominantly rural America, a communist America, a post-nuclear America? By suggesting such a premise, and intertwining it with a good ol’ conspiracy theory plot, Paul energises that old-school SF sense of wonder but gives it a 21st century twist as his characters travel through one America after another.
The actual ideas of travelling to other places not quite like the one we know isn’t particularly new in SF; but what works here is that Paul gives it all an upgrade and makes it all contemporarily relevant. There’s a healthy smattering of science that sounds like it might work: Turing gates, multiple universes, quantum mechanics. There’s the resultant complex plot that the characters go through trying to keep their objectives true. There’s twist after twist (and a lot of running about) as running the risk of meeting themselves (called dopplers here) is avoided. As you might expect from Paul, the plot is quite complex, but engagingly so. There are some great visual images: a site of over one hundred Turing gates in full operation, trains running through the gates, places that are endearingly America-but-not – which show Paul’s skill in visualising. The worldbuilding is often suggested rather than explicit – the sheafing of universes mean that the plot here concentrates on three main alternates – but there’s enough there to engage your imagination.
As for reservations, there are minor quibbles. I do sometimes find that non-Americans trying to speak in an American context (or vice versa) don’t quite get it. There are places here where that is the case, but on the whole the dialogue is quite acceptable and seems to work. The characters themselves are a little cliched: the military all go around speaking in military subtext, the men in black do what the men in black do – but there’s enough spark and energy here to forgive that and go with the flow.
Fast moving, clever, great visuals: in summary, this book was great entertainment, intelligent and enormous fun. Reading it, I found that, for the first time in ages, I had to stay up to finish the last hundred or so pages. In an already strong field, this is one of my 2007 favourites. Recommended: at least in one universe.
Mark Yon / Hobbit, August 2007