Friday, April 22, 2011

Revew: “Cowboy Angels” by Paul McAuley

In 1963, scientists at Brookhaven lab discovered not only the existence of alternate universes, but a way to open a portal and step into these other Earths. For twenty years, the United States from the “real” universe has worked to support other United States governments to become the dominant power in their own timelines – sometimes overtly and sometimes covertly. These agents are called Cowboy Angels, orphans in the “real” timeline with no idea who their parents are, and no way of tracking down their alternate selves in these other timelines.

But all hell breaks loose when one of these agents, Tom Waverly, goes rogue and begins killing the same woman across multiple alternate realities. The only man who might be able to bring him in is retired fellow Cowboy Angel named Adam Stone. Right off the bat Adam knows he’s been set up by the Company that’s brought him back into service, partnering him with Tom’s daughter Linda and refusing to give him the complete story. But Adam is just as highly trained as Tom, and he soon figures out how to get out from under his handlers to meet with Tom and get his side of the story.

Tom is dying, from a form of highly advanced cancer due to radiation exposure, as the mysteries continue to build. But as he commits suicide, with his dying act he sends Adam and Linda on a quest to find an item Tom stole from the Company; something that will answer all of their questions.

I love science fiction, though more often of the space-opera variety – it’s not too often that I look to read alternate history novels. Coyboy Angels sounded intriguing to me though, and I’m very happy to have read this book. Think of it like the TV show Sliders crossed with Stargate, only with a much higher quotient of quantum physics and no tolerance for silly or goofy alternate reality contrivances.

I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, it’s so tightly wound and every piece fits together so nicely, I wouldn’t do the story justice to go into any further detail than I’ve already done above (and what I’ve outlined above is only maybe the first third of the book). It’s a fast paced thriller, with some exciting action sequences and chase scenes. It’s also a thoughtful science fiction novel, tackling head-on the very recent scientific ideas of the very real possibility of alternate universes (which for so long were just the realm of complete fantasy). But more than either of those things, it becomes a character piece, because it’s only by caring about these characters that you wind up being swept along in the story.

Adam is a very likeable everyman; someone with a good moral compass and high ethical code, but is also willing to do what needs to be done when the time comes. He’s no wimp, he’s not a slacker or loser thrust into a situation beyond his control – he’s a hero, though also a skeptic. Likewise Linda Waverly may be the wet-behind-the-ears agent, but her firm belief in finding a way to redeem her father is something that feels completely normal.

This isn’t really a story with clear-cut bad guys – no James Bond villains or evil alien invaders – just different viewpoints and objectives from different sides in a crash of ideologies. That’s not to say there aren’t characters who are willing to do whatever it takes to make sure their side comes out on top – this kind of culture of infiltration will often bring out ruthless people, one who will kill to keep things secret.

Not surprisingly, the ideas behind a number of the various alternate realities featured in Cowboy Angels are interesting in their own right. There’s an odd sort of breaking point, where the worlds found so far seem to fall into one of two categories. On the one side are the realities where humans never became a dominant life-form. These are almost wilderness preserve planets, where people from the “real” go to live in retirement and hunt rare animals. The other alternate realities all seem to break off from the “real” at around the dawn of the nuclear age – is that because it’s an important turning point in history, or is it just a coincidence of the worlds found so far. And if you’ve noticed that I haven’t mentioned if any of these worlds is the reality we know, yes I’ve done that on purpose – because it’s something you’re meant to wonder as you’re reading along until you start to piece everything together.

In all it’s a very compelling work by an author whose work I’ve never read before, but will certainly seek out again in the future.


SQT said...

I've seen this book, but never really gave it a close look. Most of the blurbs made it seem mildly interesting, but not enough to pick up. Now it sounds like something I want to read.

Thanks for the review.

Felix said...

It's one of those science fiction covers that are so cool in themselves, they half seem to be the reason for the book's existence... Ironically, it can be counter-productive to starting to read the book.

Toyin O. said...

Thanks for sharing:)