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Against Gravity

by Gary Gibson

(Tor, £10.99, 377 pages, trade paperback, published 2005.)

Review by John Toon

cover scanIn 2088, following a terrorist nuclear strike on Los Angeles, America's political dissidents are rounded up and Guantanamoed off to the Maze, a top secret research facility, to provide experimental hosts for military nanotech. The corporate power behind the site is Max Draeger, the entrepreneur who also created the Archimedes, a space station designed to house an AI powerful enough to find God, at the special request of America's religious fundamentalist President. When the Maze experiments go awry, the project crashes and those who have survived the surgery and the tests break free and go into hiding.

Eight years later, most of the survivors are dead, killed off by their own nanotech implants run wild. Kendrick Gallmon is lasting longer than most, but his time is limited as a friend and fellow survivor tries to persuade him to go back to the Maze to pull out the secrets that will vengefully ruin Draeger, and as Draeger (of all people) tries to enlist him to take back the Archimedes from whatever has taken control of it.

"It began on the day when Kendrick Gallmon's heart stopped beating for ever" is how this book begins. It's all right, it's just his nanotech rewiring his insides. This arresting beginning happens in a pub in Edinburgh, where Gallmon is hiding in exile. The action soon moves to his native USA, which has collapsed in the wake of the LA Nuke and President Wilber's disastrous handling of it. Here he runs up against the various factions who want to seize the Archimedes and require his help in one way or another. The Archimedes AI was supposed to find some way of reaching through time to the Omega Point, that moment at the end of the universe when, according to some arcane theory your humble reviewer doesn't understand, unlimited energy suddenly becomes available and the very nature of reality is up for grabs. (It's just a scientific metaphor for Heaven, isn't it?) In other words, the purpose of the Archimedes was to make contact with God (or near offer) and put its power at the disposal of the American government. Now it looks as though it might, but for "American government" now read "opaque-motived invader that has infested the Archimedes" -- bad news for all if somebody doesn't board the space station and take control.

Los Muertos are a sort of Christian fundamentalist rump US Army, and their motive for going up is straightforward: they want to join with God and hasten the Rapture and associated End Times. Max Draeger wants the Archimedes because its his property (after a fashion), because there's enough incriminating material there to ruin him if anyone else got their hands on it, and because he plans to use the unlimited power of the Omega Point for his personal gain. Gallmon's fellow Maze survivors see the Archimedes as their way of cheating the unpleasant death that stalks them, and it seems the Archimedes favours them -- they have dreamed dreams and seen visions of the lush garden interior of the space station, calling them to head up there. Gallmon hasn't -- you might view him as the atheist amid this band of believers. Who he sides with will largely depend on who else he doesn't want to win.

This is a densely packed SF thriller, and for all the twists and action the pace felt quite sedate to me. I think it might be all the flashbacks -- Gallmon is the only viewpoint character, and his story is intercut with lengthy scenes of his time in the Maze. This material is well depicted, particularly the gruesome failed experiments and the survival-of-the-fittest tests, but it does slow things down a bit, and the story's heavy enough as it is. The other problem I have with the Maze setup is that it's one thing for an extremist government to lock up all the liberals and pump them full of untested "ultimate soldier" hardware if they're not expected to survive, but what happens when one or several of them do develop superhuman powers and start to fight back? Bet that didn't come up at the committee meeting. But this is a general problem I have with this type of thriller, where the hero is wronged by an authority that gives him the very power to defeat them, and the scale of Against Gravity is sufficiently large that it becomes a trivial point.

Against Gravity is a good futuristic action novel, but the tagline "Live long enough and this could be your future" on the front cover tells me Gibson intends this novel first and foremost as a comment on the world we live in today. You may already have spotted the subtle parallels. But apart from the obvious -- and it was worth Gibson restating it, mind you -- I'm not sure there's much political comment to be found here. Perhaps the main point, beyond the Bush-analogue and the WTC-analogue and the Guantanamo-analogue, is a religious one: that people can (and do) believe any number of things about the same phenomenon, but they could all be wrong. Question those beliefs, people.

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