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White Devils

by Paul McAuley

(Simon & Schuster, £12.99, 521 pages, hardback, published 2 February 2004; ISBN 0-7432-3885-0.)

Forget the whopping great jacket blurb; the cover scanonly killer tagline White Devils needed to get me interested was one phrase: "Shaved killer monkeys with guns!" But enough of the dark inner recesses of my mind, what of the dark inner recesses of Paul McAuley's new book?

White Devils is set around the middle of this century, in an Africa where 'Black Flu' has depopulated the continent, along with American cruise missiles meant to kill the bio-terrorists responsible for its release (although the Black Flu turned out to be an entirely natural deadly virus). A huge area known as the Dead Zone is a war-torn wasteland, a mess of bioterror debris, gangs and poverty.

Not too far outside the Zone, Nicholas Hyde, working for a group called Witness that uncovers and remembers the victims of atrocities, sees most of his team murdered by 'white devils' -- genetically engineered, hairless, deadly killer monkeys. However, in a debriefing before the subsequent media flurry Hyde is pressured to 'spin' his story somewhat, to say the white devils were actually drugged children painted white. He refuses. And before you can say 'Joseph Conrad', the other survivors are dead and Hyde is on the run from evil-ish corporation Obligate and its evil area manager, Teryl Meade, into the depths of Africa in search of his white devils.

Meanwhile, about-to-be-famous paleoanthropologist Elspeth Faber hears about the white devils and suddenly has her fears renewed for her once-brilliant father and the tribe of apes (known as the Gentle People) that he created years ago with his then wife Teryl Meade, and which he now cares for in a remote coastal location.

Further meanwhile, psychopathic fundamentalist Christian eco-warrior (now there's an entry for your CV!) Cody Corbin is also at large in Africa, doing odd jobs for evil-ish corporations to fund his true vocation: removing the blight of genetically engineered plants and animals from the face of the earth. He definitely doesn't like the sound of Hyde's white devils.

White Devils sees Paul McAuley continue his move away from writing 'science fiction proper' towards the rich pastures of that strange new hybrid, the techno-thriller. Techno-thrillers usually have a fair amount of new technology in them (as opposed to Science) that somehow goes wrong; technology that is either lusted after by agents of evil or otherwise threatens the status quo. Whereas sf is more likely to embrace, enjoy and explore the changes the future brings, the techno-thriller is innately more conservative and secretly tends to want these changes to go away. Where sf stories can and have taken place over eons of time, the techno-thriller must remain within the bounds of a recognisable future. Any further than that and the world is generally too different for readers of the techno-thriller to want to deal with.

Michael Crichton is the techno-thriller writer par excellence, and a remarkable writer when he wants to be, but even his recent books (I'm thinking primarily of Prey) seem rather thin fare in comparison with a big ideas novel like, for example, Justina Robson's Natural History or anything by Ken MacLeod. You can read Prey and discover the awful horrors (and a few minor wonders) of nanotechnology in just a few hours and then forget about it. Which is by no means to slight that readership or that writer; anything that gets people reading and learning about science cannot be a bad thing. But I find myself wishing that the writers of techno-thrillers would push the envelope further to get past the resolution-of-awful-technological-threat storylines and enjoy that technology a little more: revel in its possibilities, imagine where it might take us, ponder what it might do for us rather than simply what it might inflict upon us. God knows, people are frightened enough of 'scientists' these days without being scared of hungry nanomachine clouds, man-made plagues, global warming and genetically engineered killer monkeys.

It would be nice if these same readers could be shown some of the potential marvels of the future from perhaps Kim Stanley Robinson's Blue Mars or Iain M. Banks' Culture novels or even David Brin's Kiln People. Again, however, we'd be in science fiction territory, which is not somewhere they want to be. But it seems to me that this enjoyment of technology is one reason why sf is less 'respectable' than techno-thrillers, and may also explain why White Devils is not being marketed as sf (its cover wouldn't look at all out of place on a shelf with 'respectable' fiction).

So I am wondering why Paul McAuley, one of the genre's Big Idea writers, seems to be limiting himself somewhat by writing within the confines of the techno-thriller, bearing in mind that his last novel, the excellent Whole Wide World, was also a near-future thriller, albeit with an excellent detective story. But then I can't help thinking that Greg Bear has also fairly recently managed to reinvent himself as a techno-thriller writer, largely exorcising the ghost of sf from his CV, and significantly increasing his readership; even Richard Morgan's latest, Market Forces, is being publicised, not entirely unfairly, as 'a near-future thriller' in the US (see thealienonline).

So am I simply being a bit parochial in lamenting McAuley's apparent 'defection' to greener (but less flavoursome) literary pastures? Well, yes, almost certainly, but the fact remains that I found White Devils to be probably the least interesting of McAuley's books to date.

For a start White Devils is simply too long. With some judicious editing this could have been a sleek and beautiful 300-page thrill-machine, instead of a frustratingly inert 500-page patchwork. One particularly infuriating thing was that the big revelation as to what the white devils are is referred to and then deferred at least 10 times over the course of the first 400 pages. Eventually I wanted to grab hold of Elspeth Faber and shout, 'What?! What is it about the white devils?! Just tell me now and then we can get on with the story!' It becomes so frustrating to hear again and again that her father 'did something terrible' or that 'she has strayed too close to the thing that she isn't ready to talk about' and seemingly never learn what it is. By the time we learn the truth I'd long ago guessed it anyway and any shock value it had held was long departed.

Slight spoiler coming up.

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Almost everyone dies in White Devils. This is a very violent and often savagely unpleasant book, not that the violence is glorified but there is an awful lot of it and it is often remarkably realistic. The unfortunate side-effect of all this bloodshed is that it's actually very hard to empathise at all with anyone in White Devils because they're not really around for long enough. And the fact that Nicholas Hyde, one of the tiny handful of enduring characters, is so resolutely wooden and unsympathetic only makes this lack of a proper grounding viewpoint worse. Having now finished the book I could tell you almost nothing about Hyde other than that he seemed completely unemotional and entirely too competent at combat and survival, despite having spent just a couple of years in the army in a George W. Bush -- type 'support' role. Elspeth Faber is a much stronger character, more rounded, more understandable and certainly more believable, but definitely in a supporting role to Hyde. And then, of course, there's Corbin, whose vicious progress across Africa seems to have been plucked straight from the Hollywood Book of Stereotypical Villains.

So what is good about White Devils?

Well, the early scene where Hyde and his team first encounter the white devils is a truly remarkable piece of writing: taut, frightening and so easily visualised that you really don't want to read it on your own at night! If the rest of White Devils had been written to the same standard then it would be a near masterpiece of the genre. Hyde's second encounter with the white devils is almost as good, but more than 350 pages separate these two incidents and that's simply too many. To return to my earlier point, I can't help thinking that if this had been an sf story there might have been more room to manoeuvre, to introduce stranger and even darker plotlines, more room to play with the ideas it throws up. But White Devils mostly eschews this path, preferring instead to concentrate on intrigues and murders that, for this reviewer at least, are simply no substitute.

I had been looking forward to reading White Devils, as with all of Paul McAuley's previous books; however this is a rather disappointing effort. It's too long and filled with too much that, in the end, seems merely superfluous. There are a few bright sparks of great storytelling, but sadly there isn't enough tinder in the story itself for the book to blaze as you might have hoped.


Review by Stuart Carter.
www.stupc.co.uk.

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