Monday, 18 March 2013

Gareth L Powell: Ack-Ack Macaque

Probably no book could live up to the insane promise of a title like that, and so maybe I'm wrong to feel disappointed.

There's about three books' worth of ideas crammed into Ack-Ack Macaque, and the problem is that I only wanted one of them; I really liked the notion of a talking monkey fighting off the Luftwaffe in some manic cross between WWII and the worst excesses of steampunk. That sounded like fun.

Fun never lasts, however. It rapidly turns out that Ack-Ack Macaque is a character in a computer game, and before very long, he's dragged out into reality and so is the poor old reader. Which is where the second book's worth of ideas bob to the surface, since the computer game is being played on line in a world where the UK and France merged in the aftermath of the Suez Crisis, and are consequently still a world power of sorts a hundred years later. There is a world of yearning wish fulfilment in the notion that the Empire could somehow have carried on lurching on, once again overtaking the former Colonies and facing down the Soviet Union until its inevitable collapse, leaving no-one to challenge it other than China. 

You'd think that would be a world where Concorde was running as regularly as the Clapham omnibus and the world would be orderly and above all know its place. Instead it's a world full of nuclear powered dirigibles, with all the famine and pestilence and pollution our own real world will probably have fifty years from now, which drags us kicking and screaming into the third book's worth of ideas, which revolve around a massive plot to replace poor frail weak fallible humanity with immortal androids that the ruling class have uploaded themselves into so that can rule a sterile empire from Earth to Mars and back.

And of course it all comes full circle, with Ack-Ack Macaque the key to saving humanity from doom. There's some big stuff being worked over here, about what it means to be human and what it means to be a person. Ack-Ack Macaque's a heavily re-engineered monkey who the big bad conspiracy made intelligent while they experimented with making artificial brains to power their androids. Waste not, want not - rather than euthanise him, they made him into the AI for an on-line game, wired up permanently to the internet in a fever dream of constant lunatic missions against ninja-Nazis. Meanwhile, we meet Victoria Valois, who used to be a journalist until a helicopter crash left her head so mangled that mad scientists had to replace half her brain with computers - more product testing for the great android project, but now the conspiracy is cleaning up after itself and comes to kill her and her estranged husband. The murder attempt doesn't quite go according to plan, and Victoria is left with her husband's back up embedded in her own artificial brain while miscreants make off with her backup to do the devil knows what. 

And even more meanwhile, the Prince of Wales (because why the hell not) gets roped into rescuing the monkey from the lab, only to discover that he's even more of an electronic fake than either of the other two, just part of the grand android conspiracy. 

All in all, the main cast of the action are a fine sampling of people who aren't quite human and aren't quite sure what to do about it. There's an awful lot in there for the mere mortal mind to chew over, if it's done right. But that's the problem; there's an awful lot of it, and Powell has tried to bring the whole thing in at very tidy 320 pages. Which doesn't give him enough room for everything he wants to think about, and more importantly doesn't give him enough room for his villains to prosper. And whatever about how he serves his heroes, his villains needed more room to breathe. They're nothing if not ambitious; the master plan involves fomenting thermonuclear war against China and wiping out the entire human race so that they can be replaced by robots.

Clearly, that's a plan of quite monumental insanity, and like all monumentally insane plans could only be undertaken by a cast of perfectly ordinary people who all think they're doing their best in difficult circumstances. Instead, everyone on the conspiracy side is a dribbling loon. In real life, they'd get quietly knifed by more reasonable people elsewhere in the vast legion they'd need to subvert to get the job done, or they'd just trip over their own dicks, as people do, and the whole plot would fall apart, probably without anyone ever really figuring out it existed. That's in the real world; in fiction, however, grand plots need grand plotters. And we never get a sense of the plotters as people; the master of the plot - apparently - is the Queen-Regent, and she's barely on the page before she's getting grenaded to bits. The evil genius making all the androids has nothing better to do than repurpose Victoria's backup into a cyber-hooker and then rape the result repeatedly, despite the fact that by this stage he's an android himself in a world where computer games are immersive enough that you hardly need a physical body to feel any extreme you might be looking for; yes, it makes him sick and creepy and well worth offing, but it doesn't make a lot of sense in terms of what the book's been trying to do up to then.

It doesn't quite hang together, in other words. And oddly enough, where it works the best is in the titular Macaque; Ack-Ack is both larger than life and somehow more human and relatable than the other characters in the book. When I bought the book, I wanted it to be all about him, and when I'd finished it, I still thought the same thing.

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