Terminal Mind by David Walton
Terminal Mind is set in a not-so-distant future America. Following a nuclear war,
America has split into powerful city states. Order is maintained by mercenary
armies hired by powerful corporate interests. Philadelphia has been destroyed,
then rebuilt within the crater where it once stood. The wealthy members of society
live high on the rim of the crater and are known as Rimmers. Down within the
crater live the dregs of society in the area known as the Combs.
The primary conflict in this novel is one of class. The chief protagonist, Mark
McGovern, is child of wealth with an affinity for hacking the computer networks
built into every aspect of the society -- even into many of the people. Wealthy
people are seldom satisfied with the bodies and brains they are born with, and a
whole host of high tech modifications help them be as smart and pretty and athletic
as they wish to be. Mark finds most of his peers in high society to be vain and
shallow; his best friend is a radical named Darin Kinsley, a child of the Combs, a
genius hacker in his own right.
The novel opens with the two of them collaborating on a project to hack into a
satellite for a little mischief. Unfortunately, this mischief leads to fatalities when
they accidentally unleash a sophisticated AI into the world. The AI is known as a
slicer -- it was created by taking a living child and slicing his brain open and
destructively recording it one synapse at a time to create a simulation of human
intelligence that can grow and evolve in the strange, bodiless environment of the
networks. The slicer can go almost anywhere a computer signal can flow --
including into the brains of the wired-in citizens. It gives the person controlling
the slicer almost unlimited power as he can literally see through the eyes of the
most connected people on earth and learn their secrets.
Mark and Darin's friendship is put to the test when the police come looking for
them. Though they didn't create the slicer, all trails point to them. Since he's from
a wealthy family, Mark's name is almost instantly cleared as his father pulls
strings. Darin, however, is now a fugitive who Mark's family will gladly pin the
blame on once he's captured.
This alone would provide more than enough dramatic tension to drive the plot, but
there's also a subplot in which the mother of the four year old who was killed to
create the slicer follows a series of clues that reveal that the cover story she was
told, that her husband and son died in an automobile wreck, is false. Her plot line
has an emotional intensity that makes the book truly heartbreaking at times; since
the reader knows the truth of what happened to her son, it's painful to watch her
hopes rise and fall with each new clue.
Terminal Mind is high-intensity human drama set in a thoroughly imagined and
highly plausible future. The writing is crisp and clean, and Walton shows a
masterful hand in slowly unpeeling the onion of his plot and setting, as seemingly
disconnected events and characters are all revealed to be part of the larger whole.
If I have one gripe about the book it's the jet bikes. What is so loathsome about
wheels that authors keep wanting to imagine the future without them? Even Darin,
the poor kid, is scooting around on a jet bike. But, of course, this is a pretty trivial
complaint about what is otherwise a really solid work of hard SF.
Schlock Mercenary by Howard Taylor
This is actually a review of three books: Schlock Mercenary: The Tub of
Happiness, Schlock Mercenary: Under New Management, and Schlock
Mercenary: The Blackness Between. They are print collections of a web comic
written and drawn by Howard Taylor. When his wife emailed me upon learning I
was now doing reviews for IGMS, I politely told her I intended to only review
"real" books in my column, but if she wanted to send me a collection, maybe I'd
mention it on my personal blog (jamesmaxey.blogspot.com). A week later I got all
three Schlock Mercenary collections in the mail. About half-way through the first
book, I knew I had to review them here. What changed my mind wasn't that this
was a good comic strip -- which it is -- but that it was also excellent science
fiction. I don't know much about Taylor's background, but he writes science
fiction with the same confident hand that classic SF authors like Asimov and Niven
brought to the genre.
While the tone of the strip is unmistakably humorous, Taylor takes his science
seriously as well. I was particularly impressed with one strip where characters are
visiting a solar system where two gas giants have collided, and they piece together
events to discover that one of the gas giants was actually being used as a space
ship. He plausibly works out the engineering for turning a gas giant into an
enormous rocket while the life-supporting moons that orbit it are carried along for
In strip after strip, "big idea" science fiction is tossed out as the driving force of the
adventure. I judge my science fiction mainly by how many times in the course of a
book I think "Now THAT'S cool!" I would say I had this reaction about every
twenty or so pages in Schlock Mercenary, while in most books I'm happy if there
are even two or three such moments.
That said, the strip is far from perfect. One disadvantage of getting all three
collections is that I can see some disappointing trends in the series. When the
series first started, Taylor's artwork was unpolished. Downright crude, even. But,
the writing was really sharp and funny and the characters had distinct personalities
and agendas. As the series develops, the writing is still funny, but I find that the
characters have tended to merge toward a central default characterization of gung-ho wise-cracking mercenary. Some are smart gung-ho wise-cracking mercenaries,
some are dumb gung-ho wise-cracking mercenaries, some have big bodies and
little heads, some have large breasts, and some have tentacles. But, if you erased
the drawings (which have become very sleek and professional as the strip
progresses), you'd probably have a difficult time figuring out who was talking.
One problem is that the strip has become diluted with the sheer number of
characters. There are dozens of named characters in the cast and all get their
moments on the stage. Unfortunately, this comes at the expense of time spent on
the few characters with actual personalities, like Schlock himself (a shape-shifting
slime mold who's a gung-ho, wise-cracking mercenary with a heart of gold) or the
ship's priest, who is just about the only character not waving a gun around.
One reason that these characters are cluttering the strip is that Taylor seems
reluctant to permanently kill anyone off. Again and again, you have characters
getting blown up or meeting some other horrible fate, only to be alive a few strips
later with their rescued heads popped onto newly cloned bodies. It's a trick that
worked well in the earlier parts of the series, but in later volumes it gave me the
feeling that there wasn't much really at stake in the fights.
Despite these objections, I still think these books are worthwhile reads for any fan
of hard SF. They will also satisfy comic strip fans of serialized adventures, an art
form that has mostly faded from the comic pages. When reading these strips, I
couldn't help but think that the strip they most closely resembled in tone was E.C.
Segar's Thimble Theatre from the 1930s, the strip that is best known today as
Popeye. Modern readers familiar only with animated versions of Popeye have no
clue about the magical blend of high adventure and humor that propelled a
toothless, one-eyed, foul-mouthed sailor to world-wide fame. As someone who
owns the complete series as collected by Fantagraphics back in the early nineties, I
can assure you that there's been nothing else quite like it -- but Schlock Mercenary
comes closer to capturing the spirit of those strips better than anything else I've
read. Check 'em out.
Read more by James Maxey