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Monday, January 25, 2010

Russell Letson reviews Alexander Jablokov

Alexander Jablokov's Brain Thief is what you might call a quirky book. It's not just the wonderfully pulpy title or even the opening line — "For Bernal, the message in the cowboy boot finally confirmed that something was wrong" — or the fact that the message consists of "three foil-wrapped chocolates, bittersweet, and a 3x5 index card" with a note from Bernal's boss, Muriel Inglis. Muriel is sixtyish, rich, eccentric, a snappy dresser, a shoe enthusiast, a collector of tchotkes, and a backer of oddball schemes of all sorts, such as one to introduce genetically reconstructed mammoths to the depopulated plains of South Dakota. Bernal Haydon-Rumi is her only employee, a fixer-of-all-problems, particularly those requiring people skills, such as explaining the mastodon project to Dakotans:
Over the past year he'd spent a lot of time shivering on bleachers above floodlit high school football fields, packing in hot dishes in church basements, hunting prairie dogs on the rez with angry young Oglala Sioux, handing down tools while politically significant people ranted at him from under pickup trucks with transmission problems.

But now Muriel has vanished while looking into another of her pet schemes, the building of an experimental AI-based space exploration robot called Hesketh. Bernal spends the rest of the book chasing after her (and Hesketh), proceeding in the time-honored private-investigator mode, bouncing from source to source, getting lied to, or pointed toward a dead end, or punched, or whacked on the head with a cast-iron Borzoi, or locked in a pitch-dark wine cellar, or hoisted 20 feet in the air inside a mobile home and then chased by demented automated golf carts.

The mean streets through which Bernal pursues his McGuffin(s) owe more to Thomas Pynchon or Neal Stephenson than to Raymond Chandler. The business and organization names alone signal this, from the mild (Fleurs du Mall, Memory Lanes — florist and bowling alley respectively) to the wild: Ignacio's Devices and Desires (towing, salvage, and stolen-tech fencing), Enigmatic Ascent (midwestern space enthusiasts and launch-chasers), Near Earth Orbit (diner and unofficial storage facility for stolen goods), and Social Protection ("DELAYING THE SINGULARITY SINCE 2005" — we'll come back to that one).

As he works his way through leads and dead ends and strangely named businesses, Bernal encounters all manner of oddballs, dropouts, crooks, con artists, thieves, fences, fanatics, paranoids, and miscellaneous misfits. This is a secret-history/underground-world of traffickers in illicit refrigerants, space-launch chasers, art-specialist cat-burglars, and at least one serial killer (who puts severed heads in bowling-ball bags — thus The Bowler). By these standards, Norman Spillvagen seems pretty bland. His business card reads "Personality Enhancement," but the nebbishy suburbanite with the junk-filled garage and disaffected kids is also the proprietor of Long Voyage, a "cut-rate cryobank" immortality outfit. Spillvagen has lost track of some of his clients and is being hounded by the litigious Yolanda, who wants to know the whereabouts and condition of her Uncle Solly, or at least of his frozen head.

Bernal's path keeps crossing Spillvagen's and Yolanda's, and that of Patricia, a damaged and damaging waif who works for the thuggish Ignacio. He keeps returning to the Near Earth Orbit diner, with its giant cowgirl-on-a-rocket sign and its conspiracy-theorist waiter Bob, who also offers monitory comments on the bill of fare. ("Stay away from the paella.... I think it has squid in it. Those things evolved too long ago to be edible.") Bernal's most frequent companion and eventual ally is Charis Fen, a beefy but womanly ex-cop now representing the anti-AI outfit Social Protection. Charis is, to put it mildly, resistant to the lure of a miraculous future.
[T]hey keep promising... stuff. Things going on. Great advances. Constantly increasing speed, infinite power, all knowledge and cognition sliding down into an expanding Singularity that will suck everything up and remake the universe. And what do I actually get? The ability to learn the uninformed opinions of everyone in the world through round-cornered communications devices my fat fingers are too big to use.

Bernal, pinballing among these crooks and looneys, can barely figure out where he's going to wind up next — like the famously convoluted plot of the film version of The Big Sleep, this one spins us all around so thoroughly (often with a bucket over our heads) that by the time it's all sorted out it's hard to tell whether it all made sense. (I think it does, just don't make me explain how in detail.) But the chase is perhaps less important than the set-pieces with which it is studded, such as the aforementioned sequence that starts with our hero dodging bullets in a suspended mobile home and winds up with him dodging falling engine blocks at the bottom of a junk pit. On second thought, it would probably be a mistake to minimize the McGuffin-chase, since McGuffins don't usually chase back, which in turn means that this really is a science fiction story after all — just one that's set on the other side of the rabbit hole, which is always an entertaining place to visit, no matter which genre provides the excuse for the expedition.

Read more! This is one of many reviews from the January issue of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe.

Brain Thief

Alexander Jablokov

(Tor 978-0-7653-2200-5, $24.99, 383pp, hc) January 2010


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