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Chi by Alexander Besher (Orbit, £10.99, 306 pages, large format paperback; published 7 January 1999.)

Chi is a thriller only in the virtual sense. The book certainly looks like a thriller, it has pages - 306 of them - filled with thriller-type shootings, torture and events, the blurb on the back describes the contents in thriller terms, but there the similarity ends.

If Chi was software it wouldn't be a kickass fight game or even a plodding RPG, it would be a screensaver. Elegant, colourful and clever, especially clever.

Which is Chi's weakness as much as it is Alexander Besher's strength.

Chi is Besher's third book, following on from Rim and Mir (reviewed elsewhere in infinity plus) and once again it involves famous VR investigator Frank Gobi - the hero of Rim - and Frank's son Trevor whose girlfriend got infected with a virulent auto-erotic mutant tattoo in Mir.

This time round, the obscenely-obese drug lord Wing Fat is siphoning off life energy from a beautiful Thai trans-sexual called Butterfly and selling it to bored Americans (and anyone else who can pay)...

There's a subplot involving an e-mail service used by animals and operated by nature itself, another involving captured baby orang-utan being modified with biosoftware and plastic surgery to provide children for infertile couples, both subservient to the major plot where worlds mesh as VR bleeds through into reality, until finally VR and 'reality' become the same.

And for all its bar-room brawls, low dives and kickboxing matches between man and buffalo, the reason Chi isn't really a thriller is that thrillers need plot, usually quite a lot of plot and Chi is almost plotless, at least in the traditional sense.

There is no progression of character, no unexpected twist of fate to drive the narrative. Macguffins are supplied a plenty, but these come and go so fast they hardly touch the consciousness of the reader.

Events happen - and that's it. What's more, the 'events happen, live with it' approach to narrative seems entirely intentional. As if Besher is saying, life may have a structure but it's not one we impose ourselves.

Occasionally Besher lets the action make sense but more often than not events in Chi don't even follow the book's own internal logic. But, bizarrely enough, it doesn't really matter. Those who like Besher (and I do) will love the wordplay and forgive the soaring flights of imagination that suddenly plummet as something else captures the author's interest. And those who don't like Besher will regard Chi as rampantly self-indulgence.

Same as it ever was, really...

Review by Jon Courtenay Grimwood.

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© Jon Courtenay Grimwood 14 May 1999