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New York Blues
Eric Brown
Gollancz, 240 pages

New York Blues
Eric Brown
Eric Brown lives in Haworth in West Yorkshire. His books Vol. 1 of the Virex Trilogy, New York Nights, as well as the novels Penumbra, Meridian Days, Engineman, Untouchable, and Walkabout (the latter two for young adults), and the collections The Time-Lapsed Man and Blue Shifting. He is a regular and popular contributor to Interzone magazine.

Eric Brown Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Parallax View
SF Site Review: New York Nights

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Victoria Strauss

The second installment of Eric Brown's Virex Trilogy, set in a near-future North America catastrophically altered by nuclear disaster and climate change, finds private eye Hal Halliday in sole possession of the detective agency he ran with partner Barney Kluger (murdered in the first volume). In the six months since Barney's death, a lot has changed. Hal hasn't been working much; his live-in girlfriend Kim has dumped him, and Casey, a street waif he took in at the end of New York Nights, has moved in on a permanent basis. VR technology (just getting off the ground in the previous book) is well on the way to becoming ubiquitous, with VR parlors springing up everywhere and VR addiction becoming more and more common; and other far-out gadgets have become routine, such as the chu, a holographic mask that allows the user to project someone else's face atop his or her own.

One monsoon-rainy night, beautiful actress Vanessa Artois makes the trek up to Hal's grotty second-floor office-cum-apartment. She wants Hal to find her kid sister, Canada, who vanished several days ago. But, as Vanessa is laying out the facts of Canada's disappearance, a deadly beam of laser fire lances through the open window, missing her by millimeters. Apparently Canada isn't the only one in trouble -- though Vanessa has no more idea of who might want to kill her than she does of where her sister might have gone.

Now working a double case, Hal orders Vanessa into hiding, and sets out to trace Canada. Her trail leads him to the VR sex zones, imaginary erotic paradises where people can indulge their appetites without risking their bodies. Canada, it seems, had a secret life her sister didn't know about, and Hal begins to fear she may have become a victim of a VR predator called Big Ed. Meanwhile, Sergio Mantoni, owner of Mantoni Entertainments and king of the emerging VR business, seeks to create a perfect VR replica of his murdered lover; and a ragtag band of revolutionaries, known as Virex, wage a secret war of sabotage on the big VR companies, convinced that the perfect escapism of VR is a socially corrupting force. It's at the place where all these different agendas intersect that Hal's answers lie -- and to find them he'll have to risk not just his life, but the lives of those he cares about.

New York Blues is more action-focused than its predecessor, and follows a more straightforward mystery storyline. If this results a certain loss of depth (the previous novel was as much concerned with a finely-nuanced exploration of the inner lives and alternative lifestyles of its protagonists as with the mystery), it also makes for a better-structured plot, without the over-reliance on coincidence that marred the first book. Brown pays conscious homage to American detective fiction, with a full complement of noir elements -- a disillusioned gumshoe with a softer side, a gorgeous dame in distress, a powerful and devious villain, a decadent underworld, a gritty urban setting -- that are subtly transformed by their SF frame: the grit a product of ecological disaster, the decadence existing principally in the imaginary realms of VR, and the villain, Mantoni, employing not goons and gunsels but augmented animal assassins and the infinite illusions of virtual reality. Isolated on his symbolically-named artificial island of Laputa, employing VR trickery to confound his enemies and ensnare his victims, Mantoni resembles a wizard in his secret realm, the mysteries of which can only be penetrated through arduous quest.

Brown's vivid near-future New York, lashed by the rains of climate change and teeming with refugees, draws on the conventions of cyberpunk but doesn't feel derivative. Characterization is also a strength: the hopes and fears and imperfections of the main players are precisely delineated (especially Hal's believable mix of toughness and introspection), and even minor characters are interesting. I'm still puzzled by Virex; it plays a bigger part in New York Blues than in the previous novel, where it barely appeared at all, but it's still oddly peripheral to the action of something called the Virex Trilogy. Still, the issues with which Virex is concerned -- the corrupting influence of VR, the potential it offers for corporate manipulation and control -- are central to the storyline. Perhaps Virex will play a larger part in the final installment.

Those who've read the previous novel will certainly appreciate recurring characters and themes, as well as Brown's portrayal of the ongoing development of VR; but New York Blues works well on its own terms, and can easily be read as a stand-alone.

Copyright © 2003 Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel The Garden of the Stone is currently available from HarperCollins EOS. For details, visit her website.

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