Embers of War – Gareth L. Powell

Embers-of-War-final-copy

“As a heavy cruiser, I had been an instrument of hard diplomacy and destruction; in the House of Reclamation, with my talents intact but my usefulness as a killing machine at an end, I had become instead a means to save lives.

It was almost enough.”

—Trouble Dog, Carnivore class Heavy cruiser and former member of the Conglomeration fleet.

Source: Review copy

Publisher: Titan Books

Date of Publication: February 20, 2018

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With a simple order crossing the line from legitimate to war crime, the name Annelida Deal became synonymous with the term genocide throughout the spacefaring societies of the Multiplicity.  Due to the outrage after her decision to raze the sentient jungle of Pelapatarn in a decapitation strike that ended the Archipelago War but produced massive collateral damage, Deal went into hiding.  Meanwhile, the sentient warship Trouble Dog, haunted by her complicity in the genocide, resigned her commission and joined the House of Reclamation, an organization dedicated to life rather than death. While she can never forget her past as an instrument of annihilation, Trouble Dog hopes to find redemption in her new role as a rescue ship, saving those lost and stranded along the space lanes.

Several years later, the space liner Geest Van Amsterdam is shot down by an unknown assailant in a solar system colloquially known as The Gallery. The Gallery is a collection of artificially altered planets, literally sculpted into various unnatural shapes by an anonymous race millennia before mankind looked to the stars. Their purpose unknown, the Gallery has become an astronomical oddity, visited by the occasional scientific mission or site-seeing passenger liner. Famed poet Ona Sudak, one of the Amsterdam’s few survivors, finds herself hunted through the unforgiving environment of the object known as “the Brain” by the mercenaries responsible for the Amsterdam’s destruction.  What she finds within the structure of the Brain will reveal long-lost secrets about its creators, the motivation of her pursuers, and her own past—but only if the Trouble Dog and her eclectic crew get to her first.

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The concept of artificial intelligence inhabiting a starship has been a staple of science fiction since at least 1968, when Richard Daystrom’s M-5 computer narrowly beat out Dr. Chandra’s HAL-9000 to become the first homicidal ship’s computer portrayed on-screen.  Fred Saberhagen’s Berserker predates both by several years, and further exploration would undoubtedly uncover others.  In recent years it appears the sentient starship trope has undergone a bit of a revival.  Lovelace, aka “Lovey”, the A.I. running  the starship Wayfarer in Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, explores a romantic relationship between a synthetic consciousness and her human minder, while Breq, the protagonist in Anne Leckie’s Ancillary Justice seeks revenge for the loss of her ship.* It would be negligent to not mention the sentient starships of Iain M. Banks Culture series, however, I have been negligent in NOT HAVING READ ANY OF HIS WORKS**, a situation I hope to remedy at some point.  With Embers of War, Gareth L. Powell uses this trope to good effect, crafting an entertaining tale of a sentient warship that no longer wants to wage war and her crew of emotionally damaged characters

 Embers of War has a cinematic feel, with Powell relying on short chapters and fast pacing to construct his story.  Painting with broad strokes, he allows the reader to fill in the details, conveying a universe with depth beyond the confines of the story and instilling a desire to explore it.  Each chapter represents a character viewpoint, allowing deeper exploration of their motivations and inner struggles than might otherwise be accomplished. While a great device with which to develop the central characters, it does disadvantage the non-viewpoint characters, who tend to come across as one-dimensional.

An example of this is Alva Clay, veteran of the Archipelago War and security chief on-board the Trouble Dog. Supposedly dedicated to Trouble Dog’s captain, Sal Konstanz, for rescuing her after the Pelapatarn massacre, Alva spends much of her time unfairly blaming Sal for the death of their former medical technician. Described as a talented and competent professional soldier, Alva disproves that at every chance, to the point of getting herself wounded while unloading her weapon to check IF IT’S LOADED at the most inopportune moment. She’s the type of soldier that any halfway competent military would weed out during basic training due to her mental instability.  Is this instability due to post traumatic stress or general incompetence? A viewpoint chapter or two would help explore how she came to be such a broken soldier.  Much the same can be said of Preston Menderes, the unqualified med-tech foisted on Sal right before their mission to rescue the survivors of the Geest Van Amsterdam. He’s immature and emotionally stunted, utterly unsuited to the high stress career of a med- tech, and a character that would be more interesting and less annoying if the reader were given more insight into how he came to be so damaged.

Conversely, Powell’s viewpoint characters are more complex, specifically Sally Konstanz, Ona Sudak, and especially Trouble Dog herself.  Sal Konstanz is not only a war veteran and seasoned captain, she’s the great-great grand-daughter of Sofia Nikitas, founder of the House of Reclamation.  Her lineage affords her a legacy, but she’s never been one to ask for special favour, earning her place on Trouble Dog by merit alone. While wholly committed to both her crew and their mission, Sal suffers from a lack of confidence ill befitting her service record. She’s a sympathetic character, tormented by her belief that she hasn’t lived up to her ideals, and riven by guilt after losing a crew member that she realistically never had a chance to save.  Ona Sudak’s chapters show us a multi-dimensional character that I really can’t discuss in detail without revealing major spoilers, so I’ll include her in the end notes.***

And then there’s Trouble Dog, the artificial intelligence bred for war and influenced by the predatory nature of the canine DNA spliced into her computer core, a truly remarkable intelligence displaying the empathy that Annelida Deal never could.  Trouble Dog is very conscious of her feral nature and actively holds it in check, a sign of her growth as a sentient being. Her sisters and brothers are bothered by such thoughts to varying degrees, one going so far as to commit suicide, but Trouble Dog finds a more satisfying outlet for her guilt, seeking redemption by protecting others.

Powell delves into the mind of Trouble Dog, both literally and figuratively, creating a virtual environment for her to inhabit, a plot device he’s used to great effect in earlier novels (artificial realities are a huge part of the Ack-Ack Macaque trilogy), and manages to anthropomorphize her into a complex personality both sympathetic and empathetic.  While a compassionate and fearless defender of life, she’s also a wily street fighter, bloodthirsty enough to take on her less empathetic siblings despite being denuded of her weapons systems after her resignation from the military. Trouble Dog is perhaps the most well-rounded character of the novel, making the entire endeavour worthwhile.

If you’re looking for an overriding theme within Embers of War, that theme would be the concept of redemption.  Sal Konstanz wants redemption for her (misplaced) culpability in the death of one of her crew, while Ona Sudak desires, if not redemption, the absolution of obscurity. Trouble Dog’s redemption comes through her desire to save others. It’s a tale of broken people trying to repair their lives, with Trouble Dog acting as both character and setting while they go about it.

Embers of War is the first of three acts, setting up both the universe in which it takes place, and the confrontation that will drive the next novel.  For what Trouble Dog and her crew find within the interior of the object known as the Brain will bring dire consequences to the inhabitants of the Multiplicity. This next novel, Fleet of Knives, is due to be published early in 2019, and I can hardly wait to read more of the Trouble Dog and her eclectic crew.

Gareth L Powell maintains a website and blog at www.garethlpowell.com.

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*Having read and enjoyed A Long way to a Small Angry Planet, Ancillary Justice remains on my TBR list.

**Feersum Endjinn doesn’t count, as it was neither a Culture novel nor featured an A.I. character inhabiting a Starship.  It remains a wonderful book.

***Spoiler! Spoiler! Spoiler!  It’s not really a huge reveal, but Ona Sudak is also Annelida Deal, the Conglomeration officer who ordered the massacre that ended the Archipelago War. She’s a strong personality who made a controversial decision that is looked upon with derision yet remains confident in her justification. The strike successfully ended the war and saved lives in the long run, but in retrospect was considered a war crime due to the horrific collateral damage.  The historical analogy would be the decision Harry Truman had to make near the end of World War Two, weighing the lives of those citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki versus the millions of civilian and military lives an invasion of the Japanese mainland would have incurred. She’s perfectly suited  to explore ethical issues such as “the greater good” (Utilitarianism).

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Hive Monkey-Gareth L. Powell

hive-monkey-gareth-l-powellIf joining the Gestalt meant an end to loneliness, he could see how they might find doing so attractive; but it wouldn’t work for him.  He’d still be the only monkey in a sea of apes; still just as alone, however many humans he had crawling through his head, chattering away about their human feelings, and human problems.

Reynolds could go fuck himself.

Source: Netgalley (review copy)

Publisher: Solaris Books

Publication Date: December 31, 2013

It’s been a year since the events of Ack-Ack Macaque and our simian anti-hero is finding life outside the game to be a bit of a reality check.  Back in the VR universe he was alpha primate, a virtually indestructible ball of wise cracking fur with itchy trigger fingers.  Never defeated, nigh indestructible, he took on all comers with ease and fought the good fight for King and Country with nary a thought of the future.  Released from his virtual prison, Ack-Ack managed to save the real world from the nefarious plans of Queen Alyssa Célestine and her cult of the Undying.  But that was a year ago, and now Ack-Ack finds himself lacking a purpose.  Without the constant excitement of eternal combat that his time in the game provided, he’s been reduced to piloting Victoria Valois’ airship Tereshkova from place to place and spending his spare time reminiscing the glory days while flying around in an antique Spitfire.  For a macaque of action, the doldrums of this new reality are taking a toll, as is the realization that he’s an anomaly.  As the only sentient monkey on earth, he feels very much alone.  Alone—and horny.

When approached by a spokesman of the Gestalt, a cyber-cult whose members have wirelessly connected their gelware to create a collective “hive mind”, he’s torn between two thoughts.  The first—to accept their offer in the hope union with the Gestalt might alleviate his loneliness.  The second—to tell them to go fuck themselves while flinging some poo.  Finding the balance, Ack-Ack rejects their overture with a sucker punch and assumes that’s all she wrote.  Cultists being cultists however, they refuse his refusal, pursuing his membership with a most cult-like determination.

Meanwhile, a down and out Science Fiction writer by the name of William Cole is struggling to cope with the loss of his wife Marie and failing horribly.  He’s in a downward spiral, fueling his grief with drugs and alcohol.  But when someone takes a shot at him outside his apartment, his instinctive impulse is still self-preservation, all flight—no fight.  Hours later he’s in Victoria Valois’ cabin aboard the Tereshkova, begging asylum so he can flee to the relative safety of the sky.  That relative safety proves very short lived.  After a confrontation with a dying stowaway to whom he bears an uncanny resemblance, Cole finds himself embroiled in a cold war that literally crosses universes, unlikely ally of both Ack-Ack and Victoria as they attempt to stop the Gestalt from hatching a plot, which if successful, will have consequences for the collective individuality of humanity—including the daughter he never had.

With Hive Monkey, Gareth L. Powell has once again written a novel that is not what it seems at first glance.  There’s hidden depth to his story of a hard drinking, hard fighting monkey, and it manifests itself in several themes that are there for the reader to see if they take the time to look.  If I were to sum it up in one sentence, Hive Monkey is an exploration of the individual’s perception of reality. It’s also an exploration of the idea of reality itself, whether it is Ack-Ack, whose consciousness began in the virtual and was then transported to the real, or Paul, Victoria’s ex-husband, whose essence, his “soul” as it were, was transported to the virtual when his body died.  In the first novel, the cult of the Undying wanted to evolve beyond their physical bodies, attaining immortality by creating a virtual society that would interact with reality by means of artificial bodies.  This time around, the Gestalt wants to do away with individual consciousness and live in a shared reality.  This underlying them of alternate/parallel realities is woven throughout the architecture of these first two books of Powell’s triptych. 

Now the idea of a Hive mind is not new to science fiction, the obvious comparison being the Borg Collective of Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek, or the alien parasites of Robert Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters. However, Powell has managed to put his personal stamp on the idea, right down to the creepy Mr. Roarke outfits the Gestalt wear. Their technological superiority is explained by their ability to act as a bunch of parallel processing computers, their adaptability to most situations by their common awareness, and their interest in Ack-Ack the result of—well, you’ll find out.  Then there’s the name, “Gestalt” whose definition, “an organized whole that is perceived as more than the sum of its parts,” explains their desire to collectivize the universe.

While reviewing Ack-Ack Macaque, I mentioned the care Powell took regarding world building.  He created an alternate future that bore much similarity to the one we inhabit, while introducing features that suggest the road less travelled.  From dirigibles becoming the dominant form of air travel to the unification of France and Britain into a greater commonwealth, Powell gives his future a unique brand of authenticity.  With Hive Monkey, he’s graduated from world building to universe building, exploring the idea of multiverse theory, a set of infinite possibilities resulting from our everyday decisions  Ack-Ack’s universe parallels our own with significant differences, just as that of Bill Cole’s (William’s doppelganger) is both parallel to yet significantly different from both.

As for the mild (and only) complaint that the previous novel’s villain didn’t have enough stage time to be fully fleshed out, I’m glad to see that it’s been addressed more than adequately this time around.  After all, we’ve met this villain before without realizing it and his motivation is all the more understandable for it.  It also helps that just as you think you’ve got a hold on what’s going on, Powell throws in a delightful twist that shakes up both Ack-Ack and the reader.

Now I’m not sure if I’m perhaps reading too much subtext into this novel, but I will say this: If you’re simply looking for a fun adventure with some bizarre yet compelling characters, then this book is for you.  If however, you’re looking for something with a little more depth to it, a sci-fi novel that’s more than what it seems, then this is also the book for you.  Whether it be an exploration of our perceptions or simply a fun shoot-em-up, Powell has managed to find the balance between thoughtful existentialism and pulp adventure.

Hive Monkey is the second of a trilogy beginning with Ack-Ack Macaque and ending in the forthcoming Macaque Attack. It will be released in the United Kingdom December 14th and in Canada on December 31st.  Gareth L. Powell maintains a blog at garethlpowell.com and both he and Ack-Ack Macaque can be found pontificating on Twitter.

B+

Ack-Ack Macaque–Gareth L. Powell

AckAckMacaque“Do you know what you have to do?”

Ack-Ack Macaque grinned, exposing his teeth.

“Same as I always do, right?”  He snapped the reloaded Colt back together and spun the barrel.

“Blow shit up and hurt people.”

Last week, as I sat on a picnic table during a break at work, a co-worker strolled by and saw the title of my latest read, Ack-Ack Macaque, at which point he derisively exclaimed, “Ack-Ack Macaque?  What the hell is that?”  My reply was oh so very NSFW (not safe for work) and involved a bad pun about sucking “Macaque.”  We both groaned at that lame response and went about our business.  I’m not relating this story just to prove my ability to come up with horrible puns, but that little incident made me think about how we choose the books we choose to read and how sometimes it simply comes down to a good cover or an amusing title.  Frankly, the title Ack-Ack Macaque was what prompted me to read the back cover of Gareth L. Powell’s futuristic novel about a monkey flying ace with attitude.  I’ve always been fascinated with flying and fighter pilots—throw in a monkey and some German ninja parachutists—and you have something I just HAVE to read, even if it turns out to be ridiculous.

And then something funny happened—and I don’t mean, funny “ha-ha.”  Here I was, reading a book with a monkey in a flying cap wielding a couple of six-shooters on the cover and discovering a book that was more William Gibson than Terry Pratchet.  So, a quick synopsis:

Set in the year 2059, Ack-Ack Macaque is in reality three intertwined stories that merge into one narrative by the climax of the novel.  The first story is that of Victoria Valois, a former correspondent recuperating from an accident which resulted in the majority of her brain matter being replaced by a synthetic version known as “gelware.”  She’s come to London to bury her estranged husband, and possibly investigate the unusual events surrounding his death.  Not only was Paul murdered, but during the course of the crime the culprit removed his brain, and with that, his soulcatcher, a piece of hardware implanted in every citizen to create a recording of their personality that lives on for a short time after death.  After coming face to face with the killer—and in the process having her own soulcatcher stolen (kidnapped?)—Victoria discovers that Paul’s death is in some way connected with his employer, Céleste Industries.

The second story involves His Royal Highness, Prince Merovich, the Prince of Wales and heir to the throne of the United Kingdoms of Britain and France—the two countries having been merged for a century—who gets tangled up with the illicit activities of his girlfriend Julie.  She’s a rights activist, and with a small cohort of friends, they are about to raid Céleste Industries in the hopes of freeing what they believe to be the first sentient artificial intelligence, that of a pistol packing, spitfire flying, whiskey drinking Macaque by the name of Ack-Ack who is the central character of an on-line virtual reality game.  Merovich is crucial to Julie’s plan, by way of his being the son of Céleste Industries owner, her Grace Alyssa Célestine, herself Regent of the combined commonwealth due to a terrorist act that left the King incapacitated.  Merovich also has a connection to Valois in the shared accident that resulted in her augmentation.

The third story is of what—or rather who–Merovich and Julie find when they infiltrate the facility.  I think by now you may have an idea about who that might be.  Together, they uncover the sinister plot of a cult known as the “Undying” involving androids, the first terraforming probe to Mars and possibly the end of the world through nuclear annihilation, unless Victoria, Merovich, Julie and a seriously pissed off macaque named Ack-Ack can find a way to stop them.

With Ack-Ack Macaque, Powell has proved himself an adept world builder, creating a convincing near future world in which the idea of a sentient monkey is not so far-fetched, which, to my mind is a pretty tall order.  He’s also added Steampunk elements to an alternate history novel that is not necessarily Steampunk, but will appeal to fans of the genre.  The ubiquitous skyliners (modified zeppelins) are there, but updated to be more demonstrative of real world technology.  No steam–all nuclear, and a realistic look at the direction technology can take us.  Artificial intelligence, huge leaps in medical technology, the idea of a back-up consciousness housed in a cranial hard drive, seamlessly blended into the background of a world that could very well be mistaken for our own—just projected another fifty years or so down the road.  The idea of a history in which France and England merged into a larger commonwealth with a shared monarchy does not seem an unrealistic possibility either.

As for the characters, Powell manages to capture Victoria Valois’ frustration and determination in the face of what was a debilitating accident, and her dogged resolve to solve Paul’s murder and bring the culprits to justice.  Merovich is a smart, yet somewhat naïve young man, rashly allowing his girlfriend to lead him into situations that an older man might think twice about, but with the wisdom to recognize when the situation calls for a more serious approach, likely the result of his experience in the incident that maimed Valois.  Julie comes across as a true believer with her own rigid moral code, willing to risk her own safety to free an independent intelligence that may only exist on a flash drive, while Ack-Ack—well, let’s just say he’s got a mean disposition and a very good reason to want to blow some shit up.

Actually, there’s more to Ack-Ack Macaque than just a grumpy monkey.  Here’s a character that has to contend with the knowledge that everything he’s ever accomplished, the people he has cared for, are simply part of a computer simulation.  In other words—he has to deal with knowing his life has been a lie.  In learning the truth, he’s also been set free to pursue bloody vengeance against those who treated him as a toy.

If there’s any complaint to be had with Ack-Ack Macaque, it’s that we don’t really get to see the villain fully fleshed out.  It’s evident early on in the novel who their common foe is, but without a narrative from the villain’s point of view, I found myself wanting to understand their motivation a little better.  The opponent is mentioned many times and the protagonists deal with the villain’s minions on several occasions, but when the reader finally meets the antagonist, it’s so brief they feel like a plot device rather than an important character.  Having said that, this lack of motivational description doesn’t detract from the novels best features, namely a bunch of wounded characters (literally and figuratively) pressed together by circumstance to accomplish the same goal.  You know—saving the world.

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Gareth L. Powell is the author of Ack-Ack Macaque and its forthcoming sequel Hive Monkey.  He maintains a website at www.garethlpowell.com and both Gareth and Ack-Ack Macaque can be found on twitter, engaging in hilarious conversations.