The Second Angel
(Henry Holt and Company, $25.00, 392 pages, hardcover, January 1999.
Pocket, $6.99, 464 pages, paperback, March 2000.)
The dark, uncompromising Berlin Noir trilogy heralded Philip
Kerr's literary debut. These novels, originally published from 1989
to 1991, chronicled the travails of Bernie Gunther-- a
German police officer who despised the Nazis--from the ascension of
Hitler to the aftermath of the Second World War. Kerr deployed his masterful
grasp of history, hard-boiled crime fiction, anthropology, and psychology
to great effect and created an unforgettable saga.
Since then Kerr has treated his readers to A Philosophical Investigation
of serial killing in 21st-century London, the Dead Meat of the
Russian Mafia, The Grid of an artificially intelligent murderous
Los Angeles building, a Himalayan missing link called Esau, and
the criminal mayhem behind A Five-Year Plan.
His new novel, The Second Angel, is a welcome return to the
more ambitious scope of Kerr's earlier novels (after three relatively
light books). Here, he focuses his eager imagination on the year 2069--the
centennial of the lunar landing--and describes a society sick not only
with a deadly blood virus called P2 but also with an insidious greed
that allows the diseased to suffer and die even as a cure is readily
The cure for P2 is a total blood transfusion. The irony, very resonant
in these economically unbalanced times when the rich keep getting richer
and the poor just get poorer, is that the only people who can afford
the cure are the only ones not afflicted with the virus. Blood, pure
uninfected blood, has replaced gold or any currency as the economic
standard. The healthy give blood as often as they can and then deposit
it in ultra-secure blood banks, where it is stored as collateral against
mortgages, investments, etc. There is enough blood deposited in the
various banks worldwide to eradicate the deadly, slow-acting virus,
but capitalist economy precludes its use. The healthy and diseased are
segregated--a valid health card is required to gain entry to many hotels,
restaurants, offices, parks, and even neighbourhoods.
Such is the status quo presented in The Second Angel, accepted
without question by the privileged protagonist--Dallas--until circumstances
shatter his world. He designs security systems for Terotechnology, whose
clients include blood banks. Events push his employer to order Rimmer--Terotechnology's
head of internal security--to assassinate the star designer. Rimmer's
failure nevertheless begets tragic consequences. Dallas's quest for
vengeance leads him to assemble a team of P2-infected outlaws to break
into the Moon-based First National Blood Bank (which he designed) during
the centennial celebrations of the Apollo landing.
In one of its many speculative forays, and this one ultimately proves
to be pivotal to both theme and plot, The Second Angel delves
into quantum computer technology. Quantum computers are currently theoretical.
Quantum theory states that, until influenced by observation, all probabilities
exist simultaneously. Quantum computers, based upon this theory, would
operate in infinite or near-infinite realities, hence increasing their
capabilities beyond anything presently possible. Whether or not such
machines are feasible, they are nonetheless being researched and the
idea of them can serve as inspiration to explore the impact of their
development. Ian Watson's earlier Hard Questions (1996) is the
first novel I've come across to deal with this area of speculation.
Its treatment of the concept--involving a wholesale revamp of reality--is
more fantastic than The Second Angel's, whose sober yet awe-inspiring
conclusion challenges the reader to wrestle with intriguing moral ambiguities.
Philip Kerr's The Second Angel is rich with peculiar characters,
daring ideas, and astute speculation. It skilfully allies the serious
preoccupations of his early work (the struggle to retain personal dignity
in a society stripped of its collective dignity) with the more commercial
action-oriented drive of his latter books. Kerr's vivid depiction of
this future world highlights its cinematic potential. Certainly, former
Blade Runner Harrison Ford would make a perfect Dallas and the evil
Rimmer begs to be portrayed by Kevin Spacey of The Usual Suspects
and Seven infamy. It's a great read that works as thriller, science
fiction, and literary entertainment.
Originally published, in substantially different form, in The National
Post, 13 Jan 1999.
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