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Be My Enemy
Ian McDonald
Pyr, 267 pages

Be My Enemy
Ian McDonald
Ian McDonald was born in 1960 in Manchester and moved to Northern Ireland in 1965. At present, he lives in Belfast with his wife, Patricia. His debut was the short story, The Island of the Dead, in the British magazine, Extro. His work has won the Philip K. Dick Award for best original SF paperback, the Locus poll for best first novel, and several nominations for the Arthur C. Clarke Award.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Planesrunner
SF Site Review: Planesrunner
SF Site Review: The Dervish House
SF Site Review: The Dervish House
SF Site Review: Cyberabad Days
SF Site Review: Cyberabad Days
SF Site Review: Brasyl
SF Site Review: Ares Express
SF Site Review: Sacrifice of Fools
SF Site Reading List: Ian McDonald

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Paul Kincaid

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In Planesrunner, the first part of his YA Everness series, Ian McDonald introduced a superbly competent teenage hero, Everett Singh, took him to a vividly realized steampunk world, put him aboard the airship Everness with its attractive crew and convenient romantic interest, Sen, and gave him a near-impossible quest, to locate his father who has been banished to any of a presumably infinite number of parallel universes. So how do you take the series forward if you don't want to simply repeat the formula as before?

Part of the answer is to give him an opponent worthy of his abilities. Of course, he already has an enemy, the malignant Charlotte Villiers and her Order, whose secret plan seems to be to seize control of the entire multiverse. But Everett has already run rings around her in the first volume, so there needs to be someone else, someone who's more of a match. McDonald introduces the only villain who might be the equal for Everett's agility, wit and intelligence: Everett Singh.

One thing to realize, with all these parallel worlds, is that the inhabitants of those worlds are also duplicated. So it is not too difficult for Charlotte Villiers and her own alter, Charles Villiers, to find another Everett Singh (distinguished throughout the novel as Everett M.). He is also the son of a brilliant physicist, Tejendra (dead in this world), plays in goal for his school football team, and is in all respects identical to our Everett. Indeed, his entire world is like ours in every respect, except that the moon has been occupied by the alien Thryn Sentiency. Villiers arranges for Everett M. to be apparently killed in a road accident (there is a strange pattern of these in the series), then has his body filled with alien weapons technology and taught that the entire multiverse is under serious threat from our Everett Singh. Everett M. is then transported to our world, reunited with "his" family, and there waits for our Everett to reappear. When he does there is a spectacular duel in which each knows exactly what the other is about to do, and Everett is able to escape only because of the help of Sen. Though it is a pity that Everett M. disappears from the story for a while at this point, reappearing only for the great climax.

Another way to move the series forward is to raise the stakes. To this point, the series has been driven by two conflicting imperatives: Charlotte Villiers wants to seize control of the entire Panoply of All Worlds by taking possession of Everett's Infundibulum (one of rather too many knowing references to other science fictions, of which Captain Sixsmyth's habit of saying "Make it so" is the one that annoys me most); and Everett wants to find his father, who was first kidnapped by Villiers and who is now somewhere among the myriad parallel worlds. In other words, we have an essentially political and an essentially personal impulse behind the story. Now, McDonald adds an external threat.

At first it seems like the mysterious Thryn Sentiency in Everett M's world may be just such a threat, but these are oddly passive aliens who show no obvious interest in the Panoply of All Worlds, and who, indeed, seem to exist in no other parallel universe. But then, Everett's quest takes him to Earth 1, supposedly the most technologically advanced of the known worlds and the one that first opened the Heisenberg Gates. But now Earth 1 has placed itself under a strict quarantine, allowing no contact in either direction with any of the other worlds of the Panoply. Only Everett's Infundibulum allows him to circumvent the quarantine and reach Earth 1. Here we discover that scientists had lost interest in the technology of the Heisenberg Gates, and had shifted to nanotechnology, but simple replicators based on human viruses had got out of control. The famous "grey goo," the nightmare scenario of nanotechnology, has here become a black sea that has taken over most of the world. A small human redoubt survives in Oxford, where, like the plague victims of Eyam, they have sealed themselves off to prevent the nanotechnology infecting other worlds.

Here, Everett encounters another version of his father, Tejendra, presenting Everett with a new moral dilemma when the pair must venture into the heart of nano-controlled London in order to locate the device Everett needs in his hunt for his true father. Here, too, we meet again with Everett M. I confess I am puzzled: if, as is suggested, the Infundibulum is necessary in order to circumvent the quarantine around Earth 1; then how are Charlotte and Charles Villiers able so easily to dispatch Everett M. to the world? There are one or two places in the book where the logic of the story didn't really seem to hold up, but this was, to me, the most troublesome. Nevertheless, McDonald moves the plot along deftly with a light touch, keeping incident following incident at such a rate that we barely have time to draw breath, let alone to question whether every detail of the plot actually makes sense.

What we have, therefore, is what would seem to be the middle volume in a trilogy. As in all middle volumes, it has the central problem that its primary purpose is not to establish or resolve the plot, but simply to move the characters around so that we can get from set-up (volume 1) to resolution (volume 3) as efficiently and entertainingly as possible. McDonald does this very effectively. Everett and the crew of the airship Everness, as we met them in the first volume, are an engaging group and he does nothing spoil this, even if he doesn't do anything particularly to develop their characters. Charlotte Villiers as the leading villain does rather resemble Cruella de Vil, but by introducing a version of Everett as one of the baddies, McDonald does something interesting even if we don't quite have a grip on Everett M. by the end of the book. But above all this is a work in which the plot is paramount, and even if this volume does feel a little like a Cook's Tour of the multiverse (with a suggestion that the next volume will be more of the same), McDonald adds enough new threats and complications into the mix to keep this fizzing along as well as he did in the first volume. This is not vintage Ian McDonald, but it is an appealing piece of storytelling that keeps us reading happily enough.

Copyright © 2013 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. His collection of essays and reviews, What it is we do when we read science fiction is published by Beccon Publications.


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