Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Book Review | Equations of Life by Simon Morden

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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:
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:
Now, the equation of Petrovitch's life is looking increasingly complex:
But Petrovitch has a plan - he always has a plan - he's just not sure it's a good one.
When a real-life rocket scientist stops tinkering with the tech that's come to be a byword for bona fide boffins to compose a trilogy of science fiction novels, you expect... I don't know. What do you expect? Explosive mathematics? Theorems to govern all tomorrow's wars?

What you get, in any event, is Equations of Life: a surprisingly light and indeed an eminently readable tale, considering the weight and complexity of Dr. Simon Morden's day job, of one reformed Russian seeking redemption in future London. Together with Theories of Flight and Degrees of Freedom, which instalments Orbit will be publishing one a month beginning in April, the three volumes of the Metrozone look to be the beginning of a thrilling new series with designs on the audience of Altered Carbon-era Richard K. Morgan.

Who would have thought a scientist could offer up so much action?

So the world ended, as so often it's wont to. And yet the world went on. Two decades after Armageddon, the titular Metrozone is the last city left in England. It's London, by any other name, but a changed London; the multi-ethnic metropolis of our era is now criss-crossed by "monocultural enclaves" (p.69) of refugees come from around the world for safe haven from the apocalypse, whatever its particulars. The Oshicora corporation is one such transplant; the Russians under Marchenkho another. Samuil Petrovich wants nothing to do with either façade -- and that's all they are: fronts for yakuza and Soviet mobsters.

But the imported postgrad breaks his own cardinal rule one day, when he saves a pretty girl from imminent kidnapping. Add to that the pretty girl turns out to be Ms. Oshicora herself, and her kidnappers trigger-happy mafiyaof course, and it transpires in a matter of moments that Petrovich has gone and gotten himself entangled in a situation he would no doubt describe as pizdets; which is to say, rather more politely, pear-shaped. And why did he do it? I'll hand you over to the man himself in answer to that inquiry.

"Kindness. That's why I did it. Because I was being kind. Just once. Just to show the world that a complete bastard like me still has a shred of human decency left inside." (p.100)

What Petrovich hadn't bargained on was his artificial heart giving out when he needed it most, during the first of many headlong chases through the Metrozone. Given which impetus, Equations of Life initially put me in mind of nothing so much as Crank -- the Jason Statham film. From the second he saves the princess, Petrovich is constantly on the move, limping from one high-octane set piece to another, and from there into the midst of scenes of utter destruction with such rampant abandon as to mark him an anti-hero of the old school.

Equations of Life is a heart-stopping onslaught of science and action for much of its perfectly judged duration, paced like a runaway train, and Morden handles the fireworks with a steady hand. In fiction and in film, you often find such explosive abundance standing in for an absence of character, yet the opening act of the Metrozone trilogy is no slouch in that regard, either. As per the back cover blurb, The Fallen Blade author Jon Courtenay Grimwood calls Petrovich "small, immoral [and] likeably unlikeable," and truly, his attitude could do with a thorough tune-up, while his dubious past back in St. Petersburg leaves rather a lot to be desired; not that I'd agree with Grimwood's suggestion that his size matters one way or the other -- except to leave Petrovich quite unmanned by the titans of crime he faces off against.

Nonetheless, Morden manages to render from our reformed Russian a distinct and eminently memorable presence: his relentless pursuit of the right thing is winning, and his shame as regards his other life (shall we say) more than adequately counterbalances the vitriol it might otherwise inspire in readers. I should say Petrovich's supporting players are only supporting players as yet, but they seem an interesting band - in particular an ass-kicking nun come over to the dark side - ripe for further development in Theories of Flight and Degrees of Freedom.

Don't dismiss Equations of Life as action/sci-fi fluff, either. Its pulse-pounding inclinations would be nothing without a heart, after all, and Morden summons a strong candidate in certain moments of frank humanity. There are, too, instances of real human horror fit to bring out the chills in the latter half of Equations of Life, which serve to contradict the typical dismissal of collateral damage in such narratives. Actions have consequences in Morden's novel. Bad things happen, and not always to bad people.

In the abstract, I get all light headed at the thought of reading trilogies and the like from one end to the other without stopping to take stock. In practice, however, I tend to to take big, lazy breaks between volumes; I find myself hungering for new worlds and new experiences over the comfort that comes from familiar faces in familiar places. But had I the chance, I would have started in on Theories of Flight immediately after finishing Equations of Life. Perhaps Simon Morden's first Metrozone novel is a little light in the early going, but when things get real, Equations of Life is truly exhilarating stuff.


Equations of Life
by Simon Morden

UK Publication: April 2011, Orbit
US Publication: April 2011, Orbit

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  1. This sounds really cool and I loved Stross'Fuller Memorandum (still need to buy the other two) so this is going on the old list! Great review as always :-)

  2. the three volumes of the Metrozone look to be the beginning of a thrilling new series with designs on the audience of Altered Carbon-era Richard K. Morgan.

    Pft. Since when are you an American? This, on the other hand, makes me very excited indeed: "Equations of Life initially put me in mind of nothing so much as Crank".

  3. Pft. Since when are you an American?

    Ah, balls. I think I was thinking along the lines of Iain Banks, what with his extra value-added middle initial rearing its odd little head whenever he writes sci-fi.

    Nonetheless, I am shamed.