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The Noise Within
Ian Whates
Solaris paperback �7.99

review by Patrick Hudson

This is a space opera that's aiming for that high-action far future hard-ish SF feel that's been popular for the last couple of decades. You know the sort of thing: post-cyberpunk, post-2000 AD flavour, usually with crazy 'big dumb objects', lush trans-humanism and decadent ultra-violence, hopefully mixed with a hyperbolic thriller plot across exotic planets and amazing alien environments.

I'm sure we've all read plenty of books along these lines. This one comes with a blurb from Stephen Baxter that "if you read Reynolds, Hamilton, Banks - read this." I'm not a Hamilton reader - they look a bit carb-heavy to me - I do like Alastair Reynolds a great deal and I generally like Iain M. Banks' stuff. Even Neal Asher (who provides a back cover blurb, "I read it straight through"), for all his questionable characterisation and sometimes puzzling plotting usually delivers sufficient narrative drive and colourful imaginative mayhem to keep things moving. That's the target here, I'd have thought; that's what I hoped for.

I'll be frank: I gave up on this halfway through. I do feel bad about this, as if I've failed in my duty as a reviewer, but I'm a reader too, and as a reader I'd had quite enough. I quite like the central ideas. I liked the experimental AI starship that disappears and then returns under the guise of a pirate. The character of Philip Kaufman had a lot of potential - his oedipal struggle with his father's partial was pretty funny, and there was interesting grist in his struggle with the (admittedly nonsensical) cyberspace drug Synthheaven. I was less certain about the grizzled IG (that is, 'intelligent gun') trooper Leyton and bored spacer Kyle, who had little to do in the first half, but I could have waited for their stories to develop a little if the book had delivered the exciting colourful future I was expecting. That's the meat and drink of the space opera a la mode, but Ian Whates fails to deliver a world that is vivid or consistent enough to maintain interest.

A reliance on abstract description, rather than mind-boggling specificity, was evident right from the start. The opening scene in particular, where I would have expected to be plunged right into futuristic wow-ness, was featureless and dull. We get a fairly efficient description of a raid on a drug baron's mansion, but the location is barely described - I think the only detail we get shown is a marble staircase. There's no indication of an exotic or exciting future here, nothing in furnishing and fittings that says 'whoa, the future', in fact no furnishings and fittings at all.

The only description of future tech we got here was of the intelligent gun, which is described as having an "unorthodox and slightly bulky base of its barrel". I want to see sights and flanges and flashing lights; "unorthodox" doesn't describe anything at all, just its relationship to other guns, leaving us to think about AK-47s and M16s rather than super future zap-guns like we should be focused on.

Hard on the heels of this is another action set piece that underwhelms, this time a pirate attack on a luxury space cruiser. We're assured that this is "top of the line attracting the obscenely rich" and it uses "the latest Kaufman Drive, the Mark IV, engine he had never dreamed of seeing, let alone working on." I want to see the future rich and their bizarre fashions and fads. What I got was carpets - the bridge has carpets, Kyle's cabin has carpets, carpets everywhere and that's the limit of futuristic luxury. I was less than awestruck by this amazing, shag pile future.

Whates asks the reader to do all the imagining, asks us to think for ourselves what things look like, sound like, feel, taste and smell like, while assuring us that it's all amazing, spectacular, sleazy, advanced, cutting edge or a hundred other abstract descriptions that tell us everything but show us nothing. I want the author to do this work; I want them to come up with the images and visions, and I want them in Technicolor, 3D gut-kick OMFG bizarro vision.

I had a great deal of difficulty coming to grips with the technology level, and it seemed oddly inconsistent. For example, Philip Kaufman has the assistance of two fully computer-replicated personalities (given the not very original name 'partials' here) one of himself and one of his deceased father, but these are the only ones we see. It's implied that they're not unique, but where are the others? None of the other corporate bigwigs we meet seem to have them. Couldn't they be busy in the outside world, flying The Lady J or performing dull work in the lab? Where are they all?

At the same time, we have the AI in the gun, but when the Leyton accompanies a group of techs on a computer hacking mission, the techs have to borrow his gun's AI to outwit the target's defences. The techs don't have an AI: Leyton's got one stuffed in his gun, but the computer dude doesn't have one loaded on his hacking laptop! That didn't make any sense to me - for all the advantages a wise-cracking sidearm confers (although it just seems to be a fancy scanner, detecting enemies at a distance and projecting them as red dots on Leyton's visor) surely the hacking dude would have a similarly specialised piece of kit for such an important mission? Didn't they consider that the target might have more sophisticated defences than a Windows firewall? And isn't it good luck that an AI designed for targeting and enemy assessment should suddenly be able to be turned handily to hacking, although I suppose it's a bit like all those people that use Excel as a rough and ready database.

In other places the technology seems oddly arbitrary. I couldn't understand the purpose of the "wrist information centre or wric - the 'personalised companion no civilised man or woman can do without' or so the advertisers insisted." It would seem that two people with wrics are able to - steady yourself - exchange contact information!

"She touched his wric, which squirted her ID across to Philip's. The screen on his pulsed once, indicating it had just logged a new 'friend', which meant it would now accept messages from Julia ... She touched her unit again and the face of Philip's wric pulsed a second time, to confirm that it had received a fresh parcel of information; doubtless Julia's standard contact package, which could include all manner of things, usually a brief bio, selected photo images, plus details of food preferences, musical taste, hobbies, preferred drink, etc., maybe even her favourite colour."

This sounds a lot like a slightly less sophisticated iPhone, but then it's not mentioned again apart from the scene where he makes a date with the sexy reporter, and like the partials, no one else seems to have one. So much time is spent on it I expected it to be a signature tech of the era, to have something else to do, but it just wasn't mentioned again, even when he's setting up appointments with his fancy business colleagues - like the partial, none of them have a wric, either.

There are many other puzzling elements - the automatic traffic system that can't detect the off-the-grid vehicle that Philip's car spots immediately or the very difficult to imagine and understand CGR (that's computer-generated reality - don't call it virtual reality) bar where people can post requests for assassinations, bafflingly legal because "What could the law possibly object to in someone posting a person's name on a message board? And the fact there happen to be some numbers nearby is a complete coincidence." There's Philip's drugged out journey into cyberspace where he's chased by a virtual hound that threatens to eat his consciousness before he can return to his physical body, which raises all sorts of difficult questions about the mind body split and his disparaging opinion of the partials (and why would his deceased father resort to a partial at all if he could split his mind out of his body in this way?)

This arbitrariness haunts all the technological descriptions, and much of it is dropped in as required without any foreshadowing and then quickly forgotten. Add to this the lack of detail and the world completely fails to convince. There didn't seem to be any rules I could depend on, as if Whates just stuck in whatever occurred to him and fit the situation at hand, without any consideration of technological consistency. And because the tech was never foreshadowed, every time it became important the action was immediately interrupted for long explanations of what it was the technology did, how it came about and why it didn't or couldn't do some really obvious thing that would short circuit the scene.

After a while this robbed the novel of any tension or drama. There was no solid background for the characters' problems to play out against, everything seemed flimsy and thin. That's why I had to give up on this. Maybe all this came into focus during the second half, but it was too late for me. So, what you're getting here is therefore only half a review. Our apologies: please accept a 50 percent discount as recompense!

The Noise Within by Ian Whates



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