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by Geoff Ryman, introduction by Gwyneth Jones

(PS Publishing, £8, 65 pages, paperback, November 2002, cover scanISBN: 190288048X; hardback also available, £25.)

VAO is a smart, funny tale about old age, Alzheimer's disease, and crime in the near future.

Ryman's protagonist is Alistair Brewster, though he is referred to throughout most of the text as Mr Brewster, as befits an 80-year-old resident of the Happy Farm home. His friend Jazza has Alzheimer's, and Brewster thinks that he himself might be showing the first signs of it. The two met in college, and Brewster's brotherly affection for his old friend contrasts sharply with his contempt for his corrupt Medical Supervisor, Dr Curtis.

Not that Brewster himself is exactly a law-abiding citizen. Far from it. Mr Brewster can't afford to stay at the Happy Farm--retirement care doesn't come cheap in the not-too-distant future. And yet somehow the bills do get paid. Mr Brewster's crimes are high-tech but low-key, siphoning money from here to there, unlikely to draw too much attention even though the sums involved are considerable.

But in the world outside, beyond the walls of the Happy Farm, an altogether different kind of crime is loading into the news-pages. A gang of the old-timers, led by the mysterious figure known only as Silhouette, are promoting Age Rage, attacking the young, healthy and wealthy. They demand fair treatment for the old and poor. It would be comical were it not for the viciousness of their methods.

VAO stands for Victim Activated Ordnance. This is technology designed to protect people: sound guns, microwave blasts and the like. Defence systems that will fry any intruders who might trespass on your land. But Silhouette has taken control of it and turned it against you.

When a close relative of Brewster becomes a casualty in the conflict, he decides that Silhouette must be stopped. Though he has sympathy with the Age Rage campaign, he cannot allow it to continue; not least because even small-fry criminals such as himself are coming under increasing suspicion and scrutiny.

This is a wonderfully engaging little book, filled with entirely plausible ideas for the direction in which society and technology are heading. Ryman even has some interesting ideas on the way technology might aid people with Alzheimer's, if only in its very earliest stages. The book is also filled with many brilliant descriptions, such as: "Jazza looks like a cricket that somebody's stained brown with tea." I couldn't help but warm to a character so described.

Ryman's residents of the Happy Farm are a charming bunch of rogues. None of us wants to look forward to the time when our physical and mental health become distant memories, eventually belonging to a past we can no longer even remember; a time when our life's savings will be stripped away by an uncaring government or a cynical institution. One way or another, it's just no fun getting old. Despite this, Ryman suggests, and I hope it's true, that the next generation of old people might just be cool enough, smart enough, and goddamn ornery enough to create havoc and have the last laugh.

PS Publishing continues to amaze with the quality of story they are finding and publishing. This is one of their best offerings yet, with an excellent cover painting and one of the best overall cover designs I've seen in some time. There are, however, far too many typos in the interior. It's hard to imagine the production process that allowed this. Surely a 65 page book selling for £8 should have been read through and corrected.

I wouldn't be at all surprised to see VAO reprinted in a Best Of 2002 anthology. It's that good and so I'm very glad to have this signed, limited edition on my bookshelf. But if you're the kind of person who gets annoyed by typos in an otherwise superior piece of work, then you might want to bide your time and wait for a reprint. I expect one will be along soon enough.

Review by Chris Butler.

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