Review: Cowboy Angels, by Paul McAuley

cowboy_angels

Gollancz, ISBN 978-0-575-07935-9

(Review first published on the ASIM website, March 2008)

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Cowboy Angels is the latest offering from versatile British SF author Paul McAuley, whose previous books have explored interstellar exploration, the colonisation of Mars, the creation of a new intelligent race, and other prominent SF themes. Here he provides his take on alternate history.

Travel between parallel worlds became possible, in one variant of Earth, in 1963 when a group of American researchers opened the first ‘Turing gate’ into an alternate universe. In the twenty-one years since that development, this version of American history, which calls itself ‘The Real’, has been seeking to place its imprimatur on other, less fortunate, variants of the United States, occurring in different timelines or ‘sheafs’. Not all alternate histories, however, wish to brook such outside interference, and so The Real has developed a number of different agencies for exerting its influence across other sheafs. One such agency, the Cowboy Angels, specialises in highly covert operations which routinely extend to assassination and limited high-target combat operations.

Adam Stone is — or rather, was — a Cowboy Angel. But he’s testified before an investigating committee, and has now retired to a wild sheaf to live with the widow of an old army buddy, in a pastoral America populated principally by the mastodon, the smilodon and the giant ground sloth. Adam has no wish to return to the dangerous and ethically questionable activities of his earlier years. But then he’s informed that a former colleague from the Angels, a man called Tom Waverly who disappeared, presumed dead, three years ago, has resurfaced and has murdered a woman, a mathematician called Eileen Barrie. Repeatedly. In different sheafs. Now six Eileen Barries lie dead, and Tom, trapped in one particular sheaf, has asked specifically for Adam Stone to mediate his surrender to the authorities. However, this is not quite what happens …

Cowboy Angels is not, by any means, McAuley’s most imaginative SF book. I mean this in the sense that it does not contain many examples of technological extrapolation, and it’s not intended as a criticism. Between the Turing gate, the quantum computer, and one other significant fictional device, the novel’s plot steadily becomes so involved that I do not believe it could sustain the ornate flights of speculative fancy that adorn, for example, McAuley’s earlier book ‘Fairyland’. Here, McAuley has his hands full detailing a half-dozen alternate histories which, in one way or another, are all struggling for survival or, if they can manage it, for dominance. It’s a struggle replete with violence and brutality. There are aspects of McAuley’s setup that I’d question — for example, it’s not entirely plausible that the only sheafs that the Turing gates can access are those which branched off either within the past fifty years (having experienced a World War 1, but not necessarily WW2) or many thousands of years ago (to the extent that Homo sapiens has not arisen) — but, hey, it’s his multiverse …

By focussing on the America of the recent past, McAuley has perhaps ensured the book a wider readership than it might otherwise expect; though it’ll be interesting to see how readers in the States receive a locally-set novel by a British author. I suspect, though, McAuley has selected the locale for less cynical reasons: American history is influential and widely known (and has a certain tantalisingly flamboyant, larger-than-life flavour), and in moving the action back twenty-odd years from the present, he ensures that present-day concerns with the “War on Terror” don’t impinge (even though there are a couple of eerie foreshadowings of contemporary atrocities). And it’s kind of interesting to try to spot ‘our’ sheaf, unremarkable and unheralded, among the bundled timelines.

I’d place Cowboy Angels squarely at the intersection of SF and spy thriller. Purists of either genre may find the other’s plot intrusions unwelcome, but those happy enough to accept a mix are likely to find this an entertaining, gripping read. The book sets a cracking pace, with a slew of confrontations, ambushes, double-crosses, lucky escapes, and missed breaks; and the violence, while not glossed over, is not luridly presented. The writing is spare, the characterisation crisply efficient, and if we’re never in any real doubt as to who the hero is, we’re kept guessing up to the end on the deeper sympathies of several of the other players.

Overall, this is a solid adventure-based SF tale, propulsive enough to be an ideal book to read on a long flight. (Not, perhaps, on a train trip …) I’m not altogether sure that it succeeds in being both cerebral and visceral at the same time, but it certainly manages to be one or the other, pretty much throughout its length.

 

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(Review by Simon Petrie, 2008)

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