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Cowboy Angels
Paul McAuley
Gollancz, 425 pages

Cowboy Angels
Paul McAuley
Paul McAuley was born in England in 1955 and currently lives in Scotland. He worked as a researcher in biology at various universities before going to St. Andrew's University as a lecturer in botany for 6 years. He's chosen to move on to become a full-time writer.

His first novel, Four Hundred Billion Stars, won the Philip K. Dick Memorial Award and several subsequent novels have been nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, winning one for Fairyland which also won the 1997 John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best SF Novel. His short story, "The Temptation of Dr. Stein," won the British Fantasy Award. Pasquale's Angel won the very first Sidewise Award for Alternate History (Long Form) in 1996. McAuley also produces a regular review column for Interzone and contributes reviews to Foundation.

Paul J. McAuley Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Mind's Eye
SF Site Review: White Devils
SF Site Review: Making History
SF Site Review: Fairyland
SF Site Reading List: Paul J. McAuley
SF Site Review: Whole Wide World
SF Site Review: The Secret of Life
SF Site Interview: Paul J. McAuley
SF Site Excerpt: The Secret of Life
SF Site Review: Shrine of Stars
SF Site Review: Pasquale's Angel
SF Site Review: Ancients of Days
SF Site Review: The Invisible Country
SF Site Review: Child Of The River
SF Site Review: Fairyland

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Paul Kincaid

Paul McAuley began his career writing hard SF that managed the tricky balancing act of looking back to the best of the genre but forward to the latest ideas and developments. In Eternal Light he paid a clear homage to Arthur C. Clarke, while in Fairyland (which coincidentally won the Arthur C. Clarke Award) he wrote what is perhaps the finest SF novel to date about genetic engineering. As a writer he has been restless, drifting away from hard SF to alternate histories, planetary romances, and eventually, over the last few years, to the near-future, high-tech thriller. Since these seem to have been more commercially successful for him than his science fiction, there have been times when it seemed he might make this sub-genre his home. But now, with Cowboy Angels, he seems to have found a productive way to marry the hard-edged thriller with ideas-rich science fiction.

On one level, Cowboy Angels is a straightforward, rather predictable thriller. It features the sort of cast we have come to expect of such a story. There's the tough but soft-edged ex-agent called out of retirement for one last mission. He's old enough to know better but hard enough to withstand crippling torture and bounce back with an astoundingly balletic fight scene. His name, just to compound the cliché, is Stone, and he's called back by the agency because his ex-partner seems to have gone rogue. He is aided in his hunt by Linda, the young girl who is naïve enough to need all sorts of business explained to her (just to make sure that we, the readers, understand what's going on) yet competent enough to provide just the right sort of assistance when the chips are down. She also happens to be the daughter of the rogue agent, Tom Waverly, so we know that the real purpose of their quest is to prove Waverly innocent. Which means, when they do catch up with him, that it comes as no great surprise to find that Waverly has uncovered conspiracy in the highest ranks of the agency, a conspiracy that could overthrow the government of the United States and initiate nuclear war.

And along the way to the expected denouement we have the expected ingredients: a race against time, cross and double-cross and triple-cross, desperate fights, ingenious plots, capture and torture and escape. The pace is unrelenting, the plot is off-the-shelf, the thrills are constructed to keep you turning the page without asking too many questions about the likelihood of any of this. It is an efficient thriller, but judged purely as a thriller it is overly familiar. What makes it work, what turns a rather trite collation of clichés into a tightly structured and gripping novel, is the setting.

In a USA that is not our own, they have invented a device known as the Turing Gate, which allows people to pass between parallel worlds. But the powers that be in this USA were horrified to discover that other Americas were not as powerful as they were. There were Americas under fascist rule or communist rule or dissolved into anarchies, there is even one strangely familiar USA filled with peaceniks who have brought down President Nixon. These different Americas (we never get more than a whisper of any other country) are called sheaves, and an analogue of the CIA begins to infiltrate agents, popularly known as Cowboy Angels, to start undermining these unwelcome states and work towards an America more like their own. The time all this is set is the 70s and 80s, and the model of American foreign policy in South America during the period is unmistakable. Then a peace-loving Jimmy Carter is elected to the White House and decrees an end to all this illicit interference in other states. Enquiries are held, the Cowboy Angels are wound up, the Turing Gates are converted to proper trade and diplomatic purposes. Such is the situation when the novel opens and former Cowboy Angel Tom Waverly starts murdering avatars of the same woman, mathematician Eileen Barrie, across the different sheaves.

On its own, of course, the multiverse setting that McAuley uses is no more original than the thriller plot he employs, but marrying the two together makes for a startlingly effective novel. The quest and investigation element of the thriller allows us to poke into unexpected corners of these parallel worlds, opening them up in ways that feel fresh and revealing. The alternate worlds element of the science fiction allows the introduction of unexpected twists in the plot, and to make the whole a game for far higher consequences than would have normally been believable in a routine thriller. That said, McAuley is at his best in the introduction of small details that make the parallel worlds scenario suddenly more vivid: the reality TV shows in which celebrities in one world are confronted with their non-celebrity avatars in another sheaf; the criminal boss who takes over a museum in order to sell genuine art masterpieces to buyers in other sheaves.

If putting together a standard thriller plot with a standard SF setting seems sufficient to make the novel work, McAuley quickly introduces extra elements that suggest something else is going on. When we first catch up with Tom Waverly he is suffering severe radiation poisoning and soon dies, but before too long a healthy Tom Waverly reappears on the scene. Is this just extra multi-dimensional confusion? If we are concerned with several versions of the same character, how are we to know if we can trust them all? Is a good guy in one sheaf capable of being a bad guy in another? The underlying paranoia that drives most thrillers here meshes perfectly with the inability to trust reality or identity that lies at the heart of the basic multiverse story. But in fact Waverly introduces yet another ingredient into the mix, the suggestion of time travel.

Now, all of a sudden, our three characters find that they are not just chasing bad guys across different versions of America, they are caught in a temporal loop. As paradox piles upon paradox, the resolution of this loop, the question of whether they can break the circle or are condemned to repeat the same actions over and again becomes even more urgent than the question of whether they can prevent inter-dimensional nuclear war. That McAuley eventually resolves the temporal loop with the introduction of enigmatic time-travelling men in black is the only major problem, the only failure of nerve, in what is one of the most exciting SF adventures of the year.

Copyright © 2007 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. He is the co-editor of The Arthur C. Clarke Award: A Critical Anthology.

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