Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Equations of Life

Simon Morden Equations of Life (2011)

Equations of Life is the first of a trilogy, a novel presented to me for my birthday by my brother-in-law, and probably not something I would have picked up on my own impetus largely owing to an extraordinarily poor sales pitch on the back which incorporates the equation of Russian mobsters + Yakuza + Something called the New Machine Jihad = One Dead Petrovitch. Samuil Petrovitch is the hero of the piece, and whilst this sort of mathematical strapline worked a certain charm on posters for the Ritz Brothers' The Gorilla, a 1939 film promising thrills + laughs = entertainment, it seems cheesy here, suggestive of airport bookstall action thriller landfill.

Happily the novel itself turns out to have a low cheese index, although it reads in places as though there may be something of a balancing act going on. I tend to dislike fiction which suggests it really wouldn't mind too much if someone turned it into a gritty television drama in which Ross Kemp impersonates Bruce Willis bending the rules but getting the job done. I don't really want to read books that wish they were on telly because it feels like a waste of everyone's time. Peter Hamilton sometimes skates perilously close to this sort of thing, and Equations of Life seems occasionally torn between media.

'I reckon on another hour, Princess, and the Paradise militia will be having a fish dinner in your old man's Zen garden.'

'Your band of criminals will be slaughtered by my father's men. Then they will come for you.'

'I don't think so. First sign of them or your jihadist friends, and that trolley you're attached to goes out the window. Seems a shame to waste a good pair of cuffs, but you've got to make sacrifices.' Sorensen snorted at his own attempt of humour.

To be fair, that's the only paragraph in the entire novel which struck me as sufficiently reminiscent of some exhausting Lynda La Plante miniseries to warrant being set aside for later sneering; and this probably constitutes an achievement given the general thrust of the narrative. It should perhaps be noted at this point that I'm somewhat ignorant of action-thriller-crime-drama or whatever this is as a genre, and so my prejudices may result from simple lack of familiarity with a certain style of writing.

Whilst we're here, I tend to find myself on amber alert when reading something in which it becomes obvious that the author believes his years at an English university amount to sufficiently rich a cultural experience to instil every word with the cosmopolitan veracity of ten eight-hundred pound male Hemingways. This is a significant problem particularly in Doctor Who tie-in fiction wherein we can travel halfway across the universe to discover that the people there are also into Vic & Bob and Ned's Atomic Dustbin, and they too worry about making their grants stretch to the end of the year. It  comes across as arrogant, insular and wanky, and unfortunately I now find my hackles making an ascent whenever I read a novel about a university graduate conspicuously written by a university graduate.

Samuil Petrovitch is a student at a London university studying very hard sums, which raised an eyebrow given that his author seems to have had a similar educational background; but nevertheless Morden gets away with it, deftly avoiding potential pitfalls with the grace of a master, even keeping it going as our hero meets sexy gun-toting nuns and prevents London being taken over by machines. It's a story falling roughly between Johnny Nemo and Judge Dredd somehow rooted in something that works very much like unshaven contemporary reality of the kind which keeps Ross Kemp in work. Told as a fast paced page-turner*, the whole thing really should fall apart like a soufflé in a late 1970s situation comedy, and yet somehow Morden gets us through, keeping it all in place even as our hero devises a working theory of everything and a virtual reality representation of Japan achieves sentience and tries to remake London in its own image. I suspect the key is that Morden sticks to the script, resists the sort of knowing winks which could have turned the entire narrative over to parody, and simply, he's just a decent writer who really knows what he's doing; or at least that would be my best guess.

Equations of Life reads like something that will probably soon be turned into a shit film with a ton of CGI and people grunting and swearing at each other in the pouring rain, so it might be wise to read it now before Jason Statham puts you off the idea; and it really is worth reading. Even aside from whether it actually does anything beyond engaging one's attention - which it does very well, by the way - the setting of an alternate London as the terrible consequence of unchecked capitalism is both horrifying and fascinating.

*: I would argue that all novels are page-turners, with the possible exception of those novels written entirely upon one side of a single massive sheet of paper.

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