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K.W. Jeter
Bantam Spectra, 389 pages

Art: Broeck Steadman
K.W. Jeter
Born in Los Angeles, California, in 1950, K.W. Jeter holds a degree in sociology and a Master's degree from the writing program at San Francisco State University. He is the bestselling author of many novels, including Dr. Adder, Wolf Flow, The Edge of Human, and Replicant Night. He and his wife make their home in Oregon.

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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Victoria Strauss

In a dark, dystopian, near-future world, an operative named McNihil -- a specialist in the investigation and punishment of intellectual property theft -- is called in by the top brass of the mega-corporation DynaZauber to investigate a murder. A junior executive named Travelt has been slain, and information in his possession has been stolen.

But not in physical form. As an executive perk, Travelt was given a prowler, a kind of android life-surrogate. A prowler's purpose is to gather experience for its user's vicarious pleasure -- experience too dangerous or fearful to undergo in one's own skin, such as the sexual fetish and depravity of the district known as the Wedge. But Travelt's prowler malfunctioned. Transfer of experience is supposed to go one way only, from prowler to user. In Travelt's case, the exchange was mutual. Now the prowler, with Travelt's personality and Travelt's knowledge inside it, has vanished into the Wedge. And the executives want McNihil to find it and bring it back.

McNihil doesn't want the job. He's already had as much experience of the Wedge as he needs, through a clean-up operation that went horribly wrong. He also suspects that the DynaZauber execs have a secret agenda, and that the job is some kind of trap. Ultimately, however, circumstance and the execs' pressure force him into acceptance. What the execs don't know is that McNihil has his own secret agenda, and has deduced a lot more than he was meant to about the real nature of the lost information. What McNihil doesn't know is that his previous experience of the Wedge only scratched the surface -- and that the person who waits for him there is more terrible, and more powerful, even than he believes.

There are many kinds of "noir" in Noir. There's the noir of the darkest sides of human nature, manifested by the soulless DynaZauber execs and the thrill-seekers who frequent the Wedge. There's the noir of the monochrome, perpetually nightbound, gangster-movie world McNihil's surgically enhanced vision lays across the ugly world he really lives in. (It's the noir world, McNihil tells himself, that's the true one: his altered eyes aren't adding an overlay, but paring down reality to what's really there.) And there's noir in its genre meaning -- whose essence, as one of the characters says, is betrayal. There's plenty of betrayal in this book: of self, of others, of larger units of society. There's lots of guilt as well -- and also a peculiar lack of it. McNihil, with his heavily symbolic name, carries around a universe of regret for his betrayal of his not-exactly-dead wife and the colleagues who died in the Wedge because of his miscalculations. But he visits horrific punishments on copyright thieves without a twinge of remorse.

There's a good deal in Noir that's familiar from other books -- the trashed cityscapes, the strange technology gone amok, the corporations that rule like principalities, the modification of human beings with cybernetics and weird implants (and the tough-cookie heroine, who seems to exist mainly as a plot device). But, unlike many authors who work in this wrecked-future mode, Jeter rejects the promise of information technology, which he dismisses as just another effort by the corporate giants to addict the public to consumerism (both consumerism and addiction are major themes in the book). In his world, "connect" has become the equivalent of a four-letter word. And there's a satirical edge to his dystopian inventions that gives them a somewhat different spin. The current corporate management bible is called Connect 'Em Till They Bleed: Pimp-Style Management for a New Century. There are executives who've had their hands modified into tiny squirrel claws so their fingers can scurry across a keyboard that much faster (no carpal tunnel syndrome there!). Charities have solved the homeless problem by actually welding shelters onto vagrants' backs (with, of course, advertising on the shelters' sides). While arresting a suspect in a movie theater, McNihil views a Disney-style family musical about a teenage Jack the Ripper, with singing and dancing body parts as Jack's helpful chums.

Noir seems to drift a bit in its early chapters, with episodic shifts of place and perspective, and scenes that seem more like atmosphere pieces than parts of a connected narrative. But in the end all the plot threads are pulled together, and it becomes clear that each of these separate incidents and elements was necessary to the story. There's a nice sense of revelation about these final chapters, in which we really do find out what's going on, and everything really does match up. There's also an oddly hopeful quality to the ending, in which McNihil (maybe) gets what he wants, and the human soul, in all its darkness, is revealed to be far beyond the reach or even the comprehension of the corporate kingdoms that seek to enslave it.

In sum, a rich and fascinating book with considerable depth and many challenging ideas -- and beautifully written, too.

Copyright © 1999 by Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel, The Arm of the Stone, is currently available from Avon Eos. For an excerpt, visit her website.

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