Yearning for the sort of cutting-edge dystopian future we were promised way back in the 1980s? Simon Morden's Equations of Life may be just the cyberpunk thriller for you.
Morden's publisher, Orbit Books, has been touting him as the next Richard K. Morgan. While I hope Morden has the kind of success with this first novel that Altered Carbon enjoyed, this first installment of the fast-paced Samuil Petrovitch Trilogy has stronger similarities to early works by Walter Jon Williams, Neal Stephenson, Bruce Sterling, and that perennial darling of the gleaming, black, low-slung set — William Gibson.
Yeah, I got spoilers, but less than you'd think. A heckuva lot happens in less than 400 pages and I'm just giving you a glimpse.
Equations of Life's opening paragraphs describe the London Metrozone of 2025 with an honest poetry missing from Neuromancer's briefer, yet less accurate, dead-channel sky*. Metrozone is a rusting, jerry-rigged urban hell teeming with the worst cutthroat refugees from every corner of the globe. A decade earlier, every flavor of foam-at-the-mouth religious fundamentalist went on a rampage known as the Armageddon. Whole nations were brought down and millions upon millions were killed or displaced by dirty nukes and bloodier coups.
Our foul-mouthed amoral protagonist calls himself Samuil Petrovitch. He clawed his way out of radioactive St. Petersburg to London by Any Means Necessary and claims no regrets. His horrific past has earned him a heart that barely keeps beating with the aid of a souped-up pacemaker and that street-lethal Bad Attitude so essential to this type of SF scoundrel. With a genius-level IQ and some shady patronage he's on the cusp of a doctorate at the Physics Department of the University of London, Imperial College all the while surviving the crushing poverty and violence of the Metrozone.
Petrovitch begins his day with a snarky encounter with a skate courier who could be the sister of YT from Snow Crash. Almost immediately afterwards he witnesses the attempted abduction of a young woman on a bustling street. Counter to every instinct, this self-centered survivalist does the unthinkable; he gets Involved. For this freak occurrence of altruism Petrovitch is severely beaten and suddenly smack dab between a feud between the local franchises of the old-school Russian organitskaya and a neo-Yakuza orporation. His cardiac implants are only barely working; he could go at any moment yet finds himself running for his life; a bit like the film Crank if Jason Statham were replaced by a papery pale, scrawny smartass Russian.
Like the Tin Woodsman, Petrovicth will need a whole new heart. The head of the criminal zaibatsu— whose daughter our antihero has just saved— is only too willing to provide a new ticker for him and involve him in the Oshicora Clan's mangus opus. Around the time of the Armageddon, the entire Japanese archipelago sank beneath the waves in a devastating earthquake. Oshicora is using a massively powerful quantum computer to create a virtual homeland: a fully immersive digital Japan down to the tiniest falling sakura petal. Being such a rugged individualist, Petrovitch would rather not have their patronage. He grudgingly accepts to ward off the murderous attentions of mobsters from the Motherland who wax nostalgic for the good old days of Stalinisim. Other tenuous allies include the requisite cynical police detective, an American expatriate programmer whose good lo' boy doofus exterior may hide a past as dark as Petrovitch's own, and - get this - a two-meter-tall, gun-toting teenage nun.
Sister Madeleine is probably the most memorable character in Equations of Life. She is a novitiate of the Order of Saint Joan, sworn to protect the clergy from folks who feel less than charitable towards churches in this post-Armageddon world. She expects to be killed in the line of duty before her twentieth birthday. There's form-fitting combat armor under her habit and she can blow you full of stigmata at fifty paces with her Vatican Special automatic pistol. Madeline is easily pissed off and— surprise — drop-dead gorgeous. Petrovitch's cold, black heart skips a beat whenever she strides into view. He chalks that up to yet another malfunction with his pacemaker.
He and his new associates must stay one step ahead of at least three warring gangs — four, if you count the cops — as they vie for control of the battle-torn Metrozone. And what the hell is the New Machine Jihad? No one knows who or what to trust. Even the automated cars and buildings are out for blood.
Despite his carefully-constructed selfish mercenary persona Petrovitch keeps finding himself on the road to redemption; saving the girl and defending the Metrozone against threats that defy imagination. Think 9/11 on science-fiction steroids. Through it all, our unwilling hero spouts a torrent of met, Russian profanity. Initially fresh and unique, some readers may find the constant use of such gems as raspizdyai, chyort, pizdobol, and idi v'zhopu to be too precious or tiresome. I opted to see it as an educational experience and looked up some online Russian slang dictionaries. I also found it original that Mr. Badass Hacker keeps finding himself unable to find a secure network connection - he doesn't even have a phone. This reminded me of Fraa Raz from Anathem, out to save the world with a protractor and some string. Petrovitch also has an intellect, resourcefulness, and world-weariness that may beg credulity. Science fiction fans are no strangers to hyper-competent characters from apocalyptic pressure-cooker upbringings, but this kid is barely old enough to shave. My belief was sufficiently suspended, but your mileage may vary.
Poor Petrovitch would rather fake his own death and run or resume solving the Grand Unified Theory with his University colleague. There actually is good chance of the latter. Is limitless free energy and control of gravity just around the bend? The next book in the trilogy is titled Theories of Flight. I suspect Samuil Petrovitch's world is destined to get much, much bigger.
Author Simon Morden describes himself as "a bona fide rocket scientist" but his passages describing the hard science and math never bog down the narrative as with some authors. Morden keeps up a breathless breakneck pace that doesn't sacrifice character depth or intelligence. The plot is often over-the-top, especially in regards to the female cast, but never dumb. There were enough twists and turns that I could forgive the more obvious ones. Equations of Life is a fun, fast read and you won't be left hanging for the next installment. It's on sale now, and the second book comes out in a few weeks. It all wraps up with Degrees of Freedom a month after that. The Samuil Petrovitch Trilogy promises to be a fast-paced thrill ride for the cynical urban space cowboy in all of us.
Look for the retina-wrenching op-art covers and pick these books up from your local independent bookseller today!
The commenter and book reviewer Grey_Area is known to all his tovarisches as Chris Hsiang. He dreams of perogis and cortical interface implants.
*That famous first sentence from Neuromancer always bugged me. It sounds cool and edgy, but what kind of meteorological condition produces flickering static? Of course, younger readers born in the digital age will think, "So the sky is blue? Big whoop."