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Cowboy Angels
Paul McAuley
Gollancz hardcover £18.99

review by Duncan Lawie

Adam Stone has been pulled out of retirement for one last job. He has to save Tom Waverly, a buddy from the old days who his superiors are convinced has gone rogue, but Stone is sure there is method to his mate's madness. Paul McAuley has chosen to use this classic - even hoary - plot to explore a multiple worlds setting. Whilst Cowboy Angels uses the science fiction toolkit more openly than some of his recent work, the story itself stays well within the rules of the thriller genre.

Stone and Waverly are 'cowboy angels', amongst the first generation of government agents from the Real, a USA that managed to create Turing gates between worlds in the 1960s. These 'gates' open onto alternate versions of the present - 'sheaves' of history. They are either 'wild', with no human civilisation, or have diverged from a common history since the First World War. The 'Real' America chose to invest in bringing democracy and freedom to its alternates - "one America under many skies" - and engaged in a series of wars through the gates which form an analogue to our America's adventures in Eastern Europe or Vietnam. In 1980, Carter is elected in the Real on a platform of ending these wars, and his government uncovers the illegal schemes and stratagems of the Central Intelligence Group, uglier and more pernicious than those revealed in the Iran Contra affair of our own early 1980s. The cowboy angels are shut down and Stone heads off to join a colony in a wild sheaf.

All this is back story, which McAuley does a good job of feeding out across the course of the novel, whilst Stone engages in a hectic scramble across the sheaves, finding, losing and r e-finding Tom Waverly, whom he realises that he can no longer believe, let alone trust. Waverly says he has a tool which turns the gates into time travel devices, something that Stone is confident is impossible. McAuley delivers the theory and practice of wormholes and Schrödinger as ably as the rest of the backstory - no skiffy style info-dumps in a thriller of this class, thank you. Unfortunately, there is little sense of wonder either - the gates, time keys and alternate histories are all tools for the thriller plot, even though the ultimate threat is to the course of history itself.

The peril that keeps the reader's interest is whether our own history, or something very like it, is going to be visited by nuclear terrorists. The choice of time setting is itself rather curious, as the story is set in the 1970s and 1980s, creating a grim nostalgia for a past that is no better than our present. The Real, with its computers and cell phones, is almost an intrusion of today into the Carter and Reagan eras, whilst the wars in which they are engaged form a conversation with the current actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although this isn't primarily a political novel, having a 'Green Zone' in central Manhattan negates the need for much explicit sharp commentary. There is also more subtle criticism, as the conspiracy at the heart of the novel is one that attempts to solve the problems of history by going around again for another try.

These plot devices have to substitute for any genuine interest in the protagonists. Stone, Waverly and their allies and enemies are all so hard-bitten and so much more focussed on their missions than their own survival that it is hard to care about whether they reach the end of the book. The outcome is a gritty, tight thriller with some SF sensibilities. Perhaps it is gateway science fiction for thriller readers, but it seems unlikely to entice core SF readers in the other direction.
Cowboy Angels

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