Exogene

Once I finished Exogene, and then had time to think about it, I spent an hour ranting at my husband about the unjust and detestable treatment of the Germline warriors. I wanted to know how the military or government could treat human beings like machines, even ones that have been genetically engineered. I wanted him to tell me what possible justification there could be for the abuse, the deplorable behaviour, and how they couldn’t see what I could see; that the Germline warriors were real human beings, with real emotions. But this wasn’t on the news. This wasn’t in the tabloids or broadsheets. It’s fiction presented with such brilliant character insight, such incredible realism that I felt truly angry at the injustice it represented.

It’s rare a book that causes such a visceral response in me, but with Exogene, T.C. McCarthy gets it just right. The story is stark, harrowing and grim but brilliant in its execution. He doesn’t waste words or go into lengthy descriptions, but still says everything he needs to with compact, emotional sentences. He gets the pace spot on, both time and huge distances being covered in a few pages, and yet you feel as if you have lived every one of those steps yourself.

The story is told through the eyes of Catherine, a first generation Germline soldier and being in her head was both tragic and fascinating. There are so many elements to her character, experiencing her indoctrination, watching her sisters embrace their faith or go insane, the decisions she makes rather than just following orders, her only understanding of the world is the one that her creator’s have given to her. As she travels and discovers her own truths, my heart ached for her more and more. Every loss, her constant weariness and even her madness resonated with me. McCarthy has written an utterly believable and realistic female character. Her determination to keep going, to overcome each obstacle and to choose her own path make her a character to be remembered.

Like Germline, I read Exogene in a single day, unable to stop until I had turned the very last page. Then I had to think about it for a while, let the experience wash over me and sort out how I actually felt and how much I had been affected. The story is told in a mixture of present tense, flashbacks and hallucinations and while that might sound confusing, it does work well.

There weren’t as many background characters in this book but we get numerous glimpses of Catherine’s ‘sisters’, both first and second generation. Megan was especially interesting and it was a shock how, almost casually, things changed for her.  Margaret was a more tragic figure, different, but just as engaging, I hope we will see her again. As with the first book, the ending of Exogene did surprise me, but for different reasons. The letter at the end caused a huge emotional response in me and I was left a bit speechless.

Exogene is a heartbreaking, brutal look at near-future warfare that is so far outside my comfort zone it may as well be another dimension. Thankfully, McCarthy manages to ground the story with realistic characters, and delivers a book which challenges and entertains in equal measure.

I truly cannot wait for the third book in this series, to see where T.C. McCarthy will be taking us next.

Rating: ★★★★★ 

Book Information
  • Author: T. C. McCarthy
  • Buy from Amazon (UK)

Halting State

Halting State is a book that ticks all my “I’m interested” boxes.  Its has lots of technology, virtual reality, augmented reality, on-line gaming, intrigue, mystery, crime, tabletop roleplaying references and a protagonist who’s full of self doubt.  So I keep having to ask myself why I found it so hard to finish.  The story is set in the near future and augmented reality is an essential part of every day life, the best example in the book is a network used by the Police to drive heads-up displays and overlays on their goggles/glasses.  The result being they always know who they’re talking to, their past history and everything they do is recorded and analysed.  The whole thing is so pervasive that the author tells us people can’t even find their way around big cities any more without their augmented reality map overlays.  Massively Multi-player Online Games are huge business, telephones are insanely powerful and provide all your local computing needs, everything is highly-connected, pervasive computing is the norm, and taxis drive themselves to your destination.

Against this backdrop of near-future technology is the theft of a bunch of digital assets which drags our little band of protagonists into a deadly hunt for what’s really going on.  Mix in some spy-vs-spy style espionage, some politics and a little bit of big business and we have what seems to be an engaging and complex backdrop for what should be an excellent journey.

Sadly, Charles Stross manages make it hard going.  The book is written in the 2nd person, with chapters alternating between the main protagonists.  Sometimes there’s even some overlap, so the end of one chapter from Elaine’s point of view in the second person, is then covered by Jack in the start of the next chapter.  This is particularly frustrating when one chapter ends, “You squeeze his hand tightly”, and the next starts, “You feel her hand in yours” (those aren’t in the book, just my example).  The 2nd person structure might work in some circumstances, but here it just adds to the overall confusion.  The rest of that confusion is delivered via the plot which is straggly and badly connected, and the technical jargon.  In an interview, Stross suggests that when he wrote this in 2008, only one of the technologies mentioned in the book wasn’t actually commercially available.  That may be true, but the sheer amount of jargon and technology mentioned is overwhelming.

I kept reading because I liked Jack (the burned out games developer), and Elaine (a forensic accountant), I even liked Sue (a Scottish policewoman). However, thanks to the 2nd person delivery and the rest of the structure, the characters don’t grow and remain pretty shallow.  Sure, they have their moments, and there are some brief flashes of what they could have been, but every time I felt I was getting to know them the 2nd person style threw me back to the real world.

The pace is okay, there’s humour, some amusing revelations and some excellent examples of what technology might turn into – but it’s all wrapped in such a chaotic and confusing plot that it’s too well hidden to fully enjoy.  I was not at all surprised when the end turned out to be nothing that we expected and it had to be explained de-briefing style in the last chapter.

The actual conclusion was a real let down after the build up and it felt like Stross just didn’t know where to take the whole thing in the end.

Having said all of that, I read the whole thing, and I laughed out loud a few times.  I enjoyed the technology when I could get past the jargon and I think Stross has provided an interesting insight into how things could turn out.  This book is absolutely not average – but I’m going to give it a squarely average score.  It could have been so much better and it’s saved only by the touches of brilliance amidst the chaos.

Rating: ★★½☆☆ 

Book Information
  • Author: Charles Stross
  • Buy from Amazon (UK)