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Stamping Butterflies

by Jon Courtenay Grimwood

(Gollancz, £6.99, 424 pages, paperback, first published 2004.)

Review by Jack Deighton

cover scanBefore I read this the title gave me visions of giant insects -- a bit like the slake moths in China Miéville's Perdido Street Station -- got up in jackboots and out for a kill but it's not like that at all; and all the better for it.

Sometime in the near future a mysterious gunman, who feels a darkness in his head, tries to assassinate an American president, fails, is imprisoned and condemned to death. In 1977 Marrakech a young boy called Moz unwittingly involves his girlfriend Malika in a gangland bombing which has unintended consequences. A Chinese emperor, Chuang Tzu, the latest reincarnation of a survivor from a generation starship which set out from Earth centuries before, has his every whim indulged and every action beamed to millions of people across the 2023 worlds of a fragmented Dyson sphere where they all live.

The gunman, known as Prisoner Zero, may be a US citizen and for a long while remains silent as to his motive but in a "dirty" protest reveals knowledge of equations which promise the release of abundant zero point energy.

The emperor has access to all his predecessor's memories (but we only seem to get the first's) and believes his human servants to be figmentary creations of an entity he calls The Librarian and whom he treats accordingly. Chuang Tzu tries to ignore the Librarian but is sent messages from It via butterflies. The information is released if Chuang Tzu allows the butterflies to land on his hand.

The most engaging strand relates Moz's brutalised childhood and his relationships with Malika, her family and a local policeman. There is a hint of magic realism here but the events are nevertheless solidly grounded; though the introduction of an American Rock star and his English female manager, while necessary to the plot, struck an unlikely note at first -- heightened when Moz's relationship with the woman becomes sexual.

Despite counter indications it isn't hard to work out who the failed assassin actually is but still the three main strands of the novel take a long time to thread together - a process not helped by a plethora of viewpoint characters within two of them; and we get a mini biography each for too many of the minor characters. In the meantime, though, there is enough casual and institutionalised violence to suit readers who like that kind of thing.

In all, there are enough ideas here to keep several novels ticking over and there is a happy ending; as well as a sad one.

The Librarian's butterflies seem rather a strained reference to the famous "Effect" of one's wing's but the novel - as its title signals - is, of course, an elongated illustration of an aspect of Chaos - or possibly Many Worlds -- Theory and of the fact that the problems of two little people, metaphorical stamped butterflies, don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy mixed-up world of ours.

Finally, while by no means the worst in this respect I have read recently, the book still contained an unfortunate number of typos to distract me. For example, did everyone involved with this really not know the difference between breath and breathe?

Once engaged by the three separate storylines the novel does rattle along and I look forward to reading more from Grimwood.

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