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The Cunning Blood
Jeff Duntemann
ISFiC Press, 360 pages

The Cunning Blood
Jeff Duntemann
Jeff Duntemann wrote two Hugo-nominated short stories in the 70s, then took a quarter-century detour into editing, writing and publishing computer books and magazines. He has recently resumed writing science fiction with his story "Drumlin Boiler" in Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine. The Cunning Blood is his first published novel. Jeff lives in Colorado Springs with his wife, Carol, and a variable number of dogs.

Jeff Duntemann Website
ISFDB Bibliography

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A review by David Hebblethwaite

Peter Novilio is in trouble. Having fallen foul of 1Earth's anti-violence laws, his sentence is transportation to the prison planet Hell -- unless, that is, he accepts a mission from the Governor General of America, Sophia Gorganis. Hell's technological development was supposedly stalled two hundred years earlier, when Earth placed a nano-mechanism in the planet's atmosphere that would destroy all electrical conductors -- but now it seems that something strange is occurring on Hell...

Peter is offered the chance to act as bodyguard to Special Implementer Service agent Geyl Shreve, a role he reluctantly accepts. The two of them are sent to Hell, posing as husband and wife, to find out what's going on. What Geyl and Gorganis don't know is that Peter is a member of the Sangruse Society, and carries Version 9 of a nano-computer called the Sangruse Device in his blood. And what Peter doesn't know is that the Sangruse Society set him up for this, after a conversation with Sophia Gorganis. And that's not all -- but it's enough to be going on with.

Reviewing The Cunning Blood is a bit like eating a lovingly prepared but over-elaborate meal: it looks wonderful, but you're not sure where to start. Perhaps the best place is the society of Hell, which is a magnificent creation. Jeff Duntemann has gone to great lengths to imagine an advanced society without electricity and, like the worlds of Terry Pratchett and China Miéville -- two other writers who have done a similar thing, though in different contexts -- it feels real. I don't know how far some of Duntemann's speculations (such as a way to create electromagnets in a non-electric world) are grounded in solid science, but the ideas are compelling enough in themselves -- I've even been inspired to look up some of the things he describes.

The world of Hell alone would make this novel a feast for the imagination -- but there's more, as Duntemann also speculates about advanced nanotechnology. Version 9 of the Sangruse Device is the world's first fully thinking artificial intelligence; it can heal damage to Peter's body and generate toxic spit in his mouth for use as a handy weapon -- but it also has its own agenda, and can hold Peter to ransom by inhibiting his basic bodily processes. The author also gives us scenes of Sangruse-altered landscapes and battling nano-machines that make "grey goo" seem rather mundane. In addition, The Cunning Blood steps into the metaphysical realm: it seems that something is (impossibly) affecting the fabric of the Universe at its most fundamental level. If all this sounds like a lot to squeeze into one book, well, it is; inevitably, some of Duntemann's ideas are not explored or developed as much as they could (or should) be. Having said that, the sheer density of imagination is thrilling; and it's surely better for a novel to have too many ideas than too few.

However much of it there may be in its pages, The Cunning Blood is not all about scientific and metaphysical speculation: the novel also has a strong political dimension. Peter has no love for the authorities, and thinks they don't take enough risks (he was thrown out of the SIS for flying an aircraft too fast). Earth is now run by Canadians and women, and he can't decide which is worse. Geyl, on the other hand, thinks that men's violence is responsible for the mess the world is in, so you can imagine how the two of them get on...

Thus, you may think, the stage is set for a tale in which the macho men (and a few macho women) of Hell demonstrate how their way of life is superior to that of the sissies on play-it-safe 1Earth (it was quite a while before I stopped thinking so). Thankfully, Duntemann makes things more complicated than that. None of the societies in his novel is perfect: even Hell, seemingly free with its system of orders (based on professions) and no central government, is more restrictive than it first appears. And there are no clear good guys and bad guys as such. Yet it's hard not to end up rooting for Hell, and for Peter. In a way, it's only natural that we would -- he is the main protagonist, after all -- but the problem is that the dice are loaded.

I'm not sure that Duntemann intends us to take his future Earth entirely seriously; certainly its depiction is rather sketchy: we meet a couple of its representatives, in the form of Geyl Shreve and Sophia Gorganis, but we don't really experience the society and culture directly; mostly, we just have Peter's impressions to guide us. This is a problem because Hell is imagined in such depth and solidity by comparison that it unbalances our view of the novel's central conflict. How can we make a fair judgement of the sides in this morally complex universe if one feels real and the other is just a phantom?

The way Duntemann presents his argument about society's attitude to risk is also unsatisfactory. There is a valid point to be made, but I don't think a hothead like Peter Novilio is the best sort of character to be making it, because he's not likely to have the reasoned opinion that would give the argument more force. And when, at the end, Peter's view seems to have won out, I felt that Duntemann hadn't done enough in the book to demonstrate that Peter was right: in other words, he hadn't earned the conclusion.

I've said a lot about The Cunning Blood as a collection of ideas and opinions, but not much about it as a novel. The characters can fall a bit flat (sometimes they feel like neutral personalities with attributes tacked on whenever it suits the plot); and I got a bit confused towards the end about who was doing what and where. Yet, on the whole, The Cunning Blood works well as a novel: the plot maintains interest throughout its numerous twists and turns; and I'm particularly pleased that Duntemann manages both to write thrilling action sequences and to weave in the science without it weighing the story down too much.

Jeff Duntemann aims high with his debut novel, and it's perhaps inevitable that he doesn't quite pull it off. But he does achieve many of his ambitions, and the result is a compelling work of science fiction. Whether your interest is in scientific ideas, widescreen action, or sheer flights of imagination, you will find much to enjoy in The Cunning Blood. I look forward eagerly to Duntemann's future work.

Copyright © 2006 David Hebblethwaite

David lives out in the wilds of Yorkshire, where he attempts to make a dent in his collection of unread books. You can read more of David's reviews at his review blog.

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