Shadow of a Dead Star by Michael Shean
So this guy comes into the pub and, before you can say, “I’ll have another pint of [insert name of favourite ale],” he’s gathered a small crowd and starts to tell one of those interminable jokes. You know the kind of thing. It’s long, structured with intermediate amusing mini-climaxes which always get a smile and reinforce the listeners’ enthusiasm as they wait for the anticipated punchline, and all in the best possible taste. Too often, jokes rapidly head south and only emerge after a long period in a bedroom or wherever the protagonists are protagging each other. The guy holding forth is vaguely familiar and, as a regular barfly, you’ve been caught up in circle around him. From the out, you’re hooked. Like this story is hot even though not pornographic — a rarity indeed. You’re hanging on every word. And when it comes to the punchline, he wrecks it. He should have said, “. . .and he thought it was a disaster!” but what he actually said was, “. . .and he thought! It was a disaster.” I should have explained. I like to deconstruct jokes so I can savour the finer points of the humour. Shame really. He had us all in the palm of his hand to the very end. We all thought this was going to be the best joke in the universe. Guess the joke was on us for listening so long except I’ve added it to my repertoire. With the right punctuation and my storytelling ability, I’ll always get the laugh instead the groan.
Shadow of a Dead Star by Michael Shean (Curiosity Quills Press, 2012) is a first novel falling into the always potentially pleasing SF/mystery subgenre. By this I mean the author moves us forward in time and then has a law enforcement officer or investigator of the age, show us round the new place as he/she/it tries to decide whodunnit. In this case, sixty years has produced a slightly dystopian Seattle in a world with some improvements in technology. Body enhancements are quite common and include the usual jacking ports to allow the wetware direct interface with the hardware and wifi access to those with the right onboard equipment. Genetic manipulation has moved forward to produce a range of treatments in the pharmaceutical industry (both prescription and street) including a real way of extending life span. This starts us off nicely as our unmodified agent, Thomas Walken, is tasked with intercepting an incoming flight alleged to be carrying three Princess Dolls. This is a particularly dark and pleasing idea — the bodies of dead girls animated and sold to paedophiles. The operation looks to be routine but, on their way to headquarters for examination, a group hijacks two of the Dolls (the third is irreparably damaged). Surprisingly, these trigger-happy bandits turn up dead a few hours later. When Walken goes to talk to an informer who may actually be the importer, the nark and his enhanced bodyguards are also found dead. In other words, the trail rapidly goes cold with two Dolls missing. Then the autopsy suggests the hijackers may have been killed by the Dolls. That would certainly be an unexpected development.
So, however you want to look at this, we’re pitched into a great story with an unenhanced cop chasing down the enhanced importers of sex toys for sale at inflated prices to the perverted. Except it gets better. About a third of a way through, our fearless defender of justice is framed and has to go on the run — so there’s almost certainly corruption in the police department. Enter a hacker with a helping hand and an accommodating interface for dongles of all types. Now we have a tag team to pursue the bad buys and deprive the perverts of their toys. All this against the clock because, sooner or later, the police force will catch up with our duo as they rapidly climb to the top of the most wanted list.
Now, as is always the way when you write reviews, you reach the boundary with spoiler territory and have to decide whether to cross over the line. In this case, I’m going to stay on the “right” side. Why? Because Shadow of a Dead Star is a terrific read which everyone who enjoys science fiction merged with a noirish mystery should try. The fact my first paragraph tells you I think the reveal is deeply annoying should not put you off. This is only one jaded old man’s opinion. You may think the ending a dramatic coup to cap a book which, in all other respects, is right on the money. I leave it to you to decide.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.