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New York Nights
Eric Brown
Victor Gollancz Millennium, 261 pages

Chris Moore
New York Nights
Eric Brown
Eric Brown lives in Haworth in West Yorkshire. His books include 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

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Victoria Strauss

New York Nights is set in a gritty, near-future Manhattan. Terrorism and nuclear mishaps have rendered much of the Eastern Seaboard unfit to live in, making New York City a mecca for the indigent and the lost. At the same time, it's still a centre of money and power, and as much a party town as it ever was. In this edgy, overcrowded, vibrant environment, Hal Halliday and his partner Barney Kluger run a detective agency that specializes in missing persons. Times are tough, and both have their own personal demons to wrestle with, but overall they're doing pretty well.

When Hal and Barney are hired to trace a vanished computer technician named Sissi Nigeria, they don't anticipate any special trouble. But Hal's very first lead brings him face to face with a terrifying assassin, from whom he barely escapes with his life. Meanwhile, Barney receives a visit from a pair of goons who threaten violence and worse if he doesn't give up the case.

Unwilling to be intimidated, Hal and Barney persist. Their investigation leads them into the depths of a strange counterculture, and to the heights of new technology: virtual reality, to be precise, the main research focus of the company for which Sissi Nigeria worked. Here, it soon becomes apparent, something has gone terribly awry -- an unforeseen consequence of advanced technology that now threatens not just its creators, but potentially everyone on earth.

For many SF authors, the idea is the thing, and the characters -- well-developed though they may be -- are merely vehicles to carry it along. For Brown it's the opposite. His ideas, while striking, are secondary, and it's his characters and their relationships that take centre stage. Despite the importance of virtual reality to the plot, the core of New York Nights is the various protagonists' struggles with love and with the mistakes and regrets of their pasts -- a story that could be easily transferred to any genre, and doesn't need the SF trimmings to work. Indeed, these non-SFnal meditations on memory and guilt and forgiveness are what work best in the book, for Brown draws acute portraits of his characters, and makes their personal battles both convincing and affecting.

Interesting too is Brown's decision to deal with virtual reality not from the more typical gee-whiz future-tech perspective, or in terms of its social cost and/or benefit, but as another example of technology escaping human control to run amok. There seems to be a cautionary message here; this fits with Brown's setting, where depictions of nuclear disaster and the use of holographic techniques for either the supremely silly (fake facades for buildings) or the extremely deadly (holomasks that can give a criminal another face) seem designed to point up both the unpredictable damage technology can do, and the pointless and self-indulgent uses to which it is often put. There's also the fact that New York Nights is first in a series called The Virex Trilogy, Virex being a Luddite organization opposed to various types of computer technology. Virex is mentioned only in passing in this volume, but I suspect it will play a larger role in future books.

Unfortunately, these well-rendered and thought-provoking elements aren't quite enough to offset various structural flaws -- such as a viewpoint character whose presence in the narrative seems mainly designed to provide clues to forthcoming action, and the obvious and unconvincing plot device that throws the two female leads together at the end so they can both be placed in jeopardy -- or to disguise the surprising derivativeness of Brown's central premise, which isn't redeemed even by the unusual spin he puts on his overall examination of virtual reality. These difficulties diminish both New York Nights' power as a character study and its interest as a speculation on a possible future -- which is a shame, for Brown is an accomplished writer, and had it in his power, I think, to do a great deal better.

Copyright © 2000 by 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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