(Simon & Schuster, £12.99, 521 pages, hardback, published 2 February
2004; ISBN 0-7432-3885-0.)
Forget the whopping great jacket blurb; the 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
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'
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.
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.
Elsewhere in infinity plus: