Whole Wide World by Paul McAuley
(HarperCollins Voyager, £16.99, 388 pages, hardback; published 3 September 2001; ISBN 0-00-225903-6.)
I think the (minor) trouble I've had with Paul McAuley's books in the past is that his characters have never really managed to engage me. As much as I generally enjoyed Pasquale's Angel and Eternal Light, and as spellbinding and awe-inspiring as McAuley's stories can be, the characters within them have always seemed curiously hollow.
Whole Wide World goes quite some way to addressing this problem.
Compared to much of McAuley's previous work the plot here is decidedly down to earth. The very near-future sees a young girl named Sophie Booth murdered in London following the aftermath of an Info War which destroyed the computers and computer networks of most of the UK (The City in WWW is a wasteland -- and not just a moral one, either). Sophie's death was webcast by her killer, and our protagonist (a maverick-cop-with-a-past-working-outside-The-System) is out to track him down. The bare bones of the plot involves the search for the killer; there are a few subplots en route, but mostly the book is carried by the personality of its central protagonist.
Something of a turn-around for Paul McAuley, then, in that characterisation and detail is all in this book. The main character is a sympathetic, idiosyncratic and decent human being (especially compared with the next generation of 'corporate cops' such as the lovely DI Davies, whom he first meets briefly on pages 70-75). He wants to solve Sophie Booth's murder because he finds such an act abhorrent, not because it will earn him promotion points and meet his targets.
McAuley's prose may not have the lyricism and edge of some of Crime Fiction's finest, but it's more than adequate to present his man as something of an 'old school' copper. The interactions with colleagues, suspects and fellow police alike are all clearly written and all ring true -- some of his more cynical private observations are a joy to read. The protagonist has a life, not just a career. He's by no means perfect (in fact, he has some deep-seated problems), but he is funny, sad, driven, biased and ignorant of himself. He enjoys music, beer and company. Basically, he's a human being, a well-rounded and well-written person.
McAuley's vision of a London recovering from a brief but traumatic descent into complete anarchy seems both trenchant and worryingly prescient at the moment. Massive, overweening security and paranoia is just about everywhere following the recent terrorist 'onslaught' -- from near-AI computer surveillance systems, to the right-wing minority 'Decency League' that has succeeded in imposing its narrow values upon everyone in the wake of the panic and fear following the Info War. The London in WWW is also still recognisably 'ours' -- alternately exciting and depressing, futuristic and decrepit.
I've read very little crime fiction -- in fact, Raymond Chandler aside, WWW is just about the only piece I've read -- and I thoroughly enjoyed them both.
I didn't come out of it with any remarkable insights or new knowledge (WWW is a complete tour de force); I'm not about to rush out and buy Sara Paretsky's latest novel; and I don't think McAuley has a brave new career ahead of him writing crime fiction. But the sense I did get with reading Whole Wide World was of McAuley perhaps flexing some newly developed writing muscles.
We know he can write some awesome hard sf; perhaps this new 'softer' McAuley can now fuse these two styles together and write something that is rather more straightforwardly and simply 'awesome'.
Review by Stuart Carter
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© Stuart Carter 17 November 2001