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In Association with
Equations Of Life
Simon Morden
Orbit paperback �7.99

review by Maureen Kincaid Speller

Samuil Petrovitch lives by the rules, the official ones and the unofficial ones. Scrupulously careful to avoid drawing attention to himself, he has no friends, no attachments, and no connections. He lives quietly in one of the domiks - the shipping-container refugee camps built on London's parks after the aftermath of nuclear strikes in Europe - and commutes daily to South Kensington where he is a Ph.D student at Imperial College. The rigorous logic of theoretical physics and mathematics provide his life with the structure he needs as he and his colleague, Epiphany Ekanobi, work on a theory of everything. Petrovitch runs his life in a neat and unobtrusive fashion, beholden to no one. And that, according to Wong, the local caf� owner, and the nearest thing Petrovitch does have to a friend, is his biggest problem. "You bad man, Petrovitch. One day you need friend, and where you be? Up shit creek with no paddle." As Wong puts it, in the flawless English he never uses in public, "we hide behind our masks, all of us, every day. [...] What about you, Petrovitch. What part are you playing?"

Wong's diagnosis is astute. Samuil Petrovitch is indeed a mask, the well-constructed mask of a gifted survivor, given the chance to become something his former life wouldn't allow. At the same time, he would not be the person he is without the strange opportunities afforded by that earlier life, the chance to read undirected. As Petrovitch himself notes, he succeeds as a researcher in part because he finds solutions in the strangest places, informed by his omnivorous reading as a younger man. And though his aloofness is part of a survival strategy it is also part of something much deeper. As his colleague, Epiphany Ekanobi, observes, "when it comes down to it, we don't actually need anyone else. We're happy doing what we do and having obligations interferes with that. Does that make us selfish, or something else?"

It is a matter of obligation that forces Petrovitch out of his careful routine of self-preservation or of absorption in his work, depending on how one chooses to look at it. It's either a moment of madness or recognising that morally he cannot simply stand by which prompts Petrovitch to intervene when he sees a girl being kidnapped. That he knows immediately what is happening gives an indication as to the nature of his earlier life. What drives him to throw away his carefully garnered anonymity is less clear. The reader might take a cue from the fact that in the subsequent flight from the kidnappers, Petrovitch's physical heart temporarily fails him (his pacemaker is out of kilter) even as his sense of natural justice suddenly kick-starts his carefully suppressed moral awareness to life.

In his ignorance, Petrovitch has rescued Sonja Oshicora, daughter of Hamano Oshicora, of the Oshicora Corporation, head of a yakuza gang involved in turf wars in the London Metrozone, as well as bringing himself to the attention of the Russian gangsters, led by Marchenkho, responsible for the attempted kidnapping, and DI Harry Chain, determined to bring order to the Metrozone and desperate to take down Oshicora's gang. Petrovitch's encounter with Sister Madeleine, a gun-toting nun, one of the Joans, trained to protect priests and churches, is a different proposition: their first meeting is one of the more unlikely coups de foudre in literature but the moment of recognition, that they are two of a kind, survivors, binds them to one another in ways that the more cultured Sonja can never appreciate.

The greatest strength of this novel, perhaps, is the way in which Simon Morden offers the reader characters who are flawed and not entirely admirable, but who win our sympathy because they are trying so hard to survive or else have given themselves up to a consuming passion, such as research. Their motivations are understandable if perhaps not entirely fathomable. Ironically, this is perhaps what makes them more human. Kindness emerges in the strangest places, such as when one of Marchenkho's men, whom Petrovitch has teased mercilessly, gives him the coat off his back after his own has been destroyed in an attack. And though we lose sight of Wong as the story progresses, it is clear that he has always watched out for Petrovitch and quietly provided him with a home from home. Similarly, we feel a strange sympathy towards Oshicora, the man who lost his country, Japan, and who is driven by an overpowering homesickness to attempt a virtual recreation of it, no matter what the cost.

And the cost is far more than Oshicora could have imagined, as Petrovitch discovers when he suddenly finds himself not only dealing with the consequences of the kidnap attempt but also trying to save himself and the Metrozone from the New Machine Jihad, a mysterious organisation which launches a series of apparently bizarre attacks on the city's infrastructure. It's Petrovitch's breadth of knowledge which casts him as the Metrozone's unlikely saviour but in casting him as such, Morden reveals what is for me a visible flaw in the novel; what is it that Petrovitch is trying to save? His answer would be, of course, the Metrozone, the place where he now lives, its population transformed into hostages all. We are, I think, supposed to understand that Petrovitch has found his own sense of social responsibility and compassion in saving them. I don't gainsay this - it's clear that Petrovitch does care but that experience has taught him it's safer to remain aloof, until now, when suddenly, he realises that he does want to make a difference. My problem, however, is that I find it very difficult to believe in this Metrozone at all.

All through the novel I was struck by how difficult it was to get a sense of the London Metrozone and how it works. It is, we are told, contained by the circle of the M25 and it is the only city left in England. What lies beyond the Metrozone is unclear. There is clearly traffic in and out of the Metrozone; how else to explain the presence of Sorensen, an American computer coder who came on a business trip and found himself recruited by Oshicora. However, not only does Petrovitch not leave the Metrozone, he hardly moves beyond zones one and two on the Underground. The narrative is so firmly tied to Central London that the whole concept of the Metrozone becomes an abstraction, apart from the shanty towns, domiks and the corporate towers built on the former parks, reflecting different levels of refugee life depending on how much money you have, which regrettably take on the guise of literary street furniture, a hand-waving gesture towards the future. On the other hand, the street-level evocation of Central London is A-Z perfect if one knows the area at all; one wonders how it reads for those unfamiliar with the geography. Street names seem to stand in for description.

In the end, this is not a novel about London, or the Metrozone, or whatever you want to call it. It's a setting, an excuse to bring together a disparate group of people, but it is a distraction: this densely plotted novel could just as easily take place in any other world city. Instead, it is a novel about flawed people, about survival, about personal loss and public responsibility, and about "the elegance and beauty of true meaning" in scientific theory. Unusually for me, I find myself wanting to read more about Samuil, Epiphany and Madeleine in the next volume of the series.

Equations of Life by Simon Morden

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