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Murder in the Solid State
Wil McCarthy
Tor Books, 277 pages

Art: Bob Eggleton
Murder in the Solid State
Wil McCarthy
Wil McCarthy was born in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1966. In 1984, he moved to Boulder, Colorado, to attend the University of Colorado. He works as an aerospace engineer for the Lockheed Martin Corporation in Denver designing satellite orbits for the Titan series of rockets for NASA and the Department of Defense.

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A review by Greg L. Johnson

There are some ideas that vividly illustrate how far apart the science fiction community can be from the rest of the world. One of those ideas is nanotechnology, the direct manipulation of matter at the atomic level. To most people, if they've heard of it at all, nanotech is just another crazy idea. For the science fiction writer, and reader, the idea is already past the exotic stage and is just another tool in the hard SF bag of tricks. Like anything else, it has to be there for a reason, something that fits the purposes of the story. In Murder in the Solid State, the idea of nanotechnology forms the background for a tale of homicide and political oppression.

In the near future, research into nanotechnology has been slowed mainly by the achievements of one man, Otto Vandegroot. Vandegroot owns the patents for the development of microtechnology, a step on the way to real nanotech. His techniques have aided the rise of a political party, the Grays, who back the use of Vandegroot's technology to monitor people's behaviour in public situations. The further advance of nanotechnology would undermine the effectiveness of Vandegroot's molecular detection devices, and upset the Grays' political ambitions.

When Vandegroot turns up dead at a scientific conference, many have motives, but suspicion falls mainly on David Sanger, a young researcher who recently won a lawsuit against Vandegroot, and who had quarrelled with him in public the day of the murder. The story follows Sanger's efforts to prove his innocence and uncover the manipulations of the Grays.

Many SF writers have explored the possibilities of nanotech for weapons, manufacturing to order, and as the ultimate medical device. Fewer have stopped to consider the potentials of nanotech for controlling the behaviour of people. John DeChancie's Innerverse, with its evocation of Skinnerian behaviouralism is one good example. McCarthy doesn't go as far as DeChancie in discussing the political issues, but they are there. The story moves along quickly; instead of taking time-outs for discussion, the issues arise as part of the action, usually confronted as Sanger makes new discoveries about the plot against him.

McCarthy writes with a clean, clear style, and Murder in the Solid State is a satisfying read. The minor characters all have personality traits or moments in the story that raise them above the ordinary. The one exception is John Quince, who is just your run-of-the-mill bad guy. While it might have been nice to have a more interesting character as the leader of the Grays, the real villain is the ideas of the Grays, and Quince functions well enough in the novel as the embodiment of those ideas. In the end, Murder in the Solid State tells a good story and gives you a few things to think about. That's about all you can ask ask of any science fiction novel.

Copyright © 1999 by Greg L. Johnson

Reviewer Greg L. Johnson picked the paperback edition of Murder in the Solid State to review because he had heard good things about the book and its author. The rumours were true. His reviews also appear in The New York Review of Science Fiction.

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