Friday 1 January 2010

The Big God Network by J C McGowan, and Starship Fall by Eric Brown

A USA split into the right-wing Christian fundamentalist New America and several smaller states such as Pacifica and New England. This is the setting for The Big God Network, a near-future story by a first-time novelist. The main focus of the plot is a new artificial intelligence programme, the Resident, which has been developed by Offworld, an organisation devoted to analysing SETI recordings for evidence of extra-terrestrial civilisations. However, such a powerful AI has other possible applications which attract the attentions of New America politicians, businessmen and gangsters (who are all closely related).

It isn't that easy to sum up or categorise this novel. It packs into its 300 pages an SF story about the search for extra-terrestrial life garnished with some esoteric belief systems and with a side-order of espionage thriller, but it is mainly a satire about the values and behaviour of the Christian fundamentalists.

The contrast between the naïve sincerity of the fundamentalist followers and the cynical corruption of their leaders is an easy target and the satire is often heavy-handed. The structure is a bit of a mess with so much going on and so many different characters that I often got lost and had to flick back to remind myself who was doing what to whom. There is also an unevenness between a lack of explanation for much of the book and occasional heavy infodumps.

Despite these criticisms I stuck with it and quite enjoyed the ride, which is more than I can say for many modern SF novels. The author shows promise but could do with a more ruthless editor.
Eric Brown is by contrast a very experienced SF writer, although I seem to have read little of his work with the exception of Necropath (reviewed on this blog on 27 September 2008). Starship Fall is a 100+ page novella, the sequel to Starship Summer (which I haven't read) although it stands on its own well enough.

David Conway lives an untroubled life of ease on the planet Chalcedony, dividing his time between reading, walking and drinking with friends, among them Kee, an alien woman from the native near-human race. His life is disturbed by two events; the arrival of former holo star, the glamorous Carlotta Chakravorti-Luna, and the disappearance of Kee to participate in a dangerous clairvoyant ritual. The tension is ramped up as old histories are uncovered and different possible futures emerge.

Eric Brown is an old-fashioned writer - and I mean that in a complimentary way. His stories are full of traditional SF elements within dramatic adventures but the focus is very much on the characters. His story-telling skills remind me of the late Bob Shaw, one of my favourite SF authors. I must read more by him, starting with Starship Summer.
I have been updating the SFF element of my website, including additional reviews and information about my novels Scales and The Foresight War, which can be accessed HERE.

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