Destroying Angel, Richard Paul Russo

Ace, 1992, 230 pages, C$5.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-441-14273-7

Each revolutionary artistic current has its host of routine imitators, not necessarily incompetent poseurs, but averagely talented artists who are either fascinated by a new style without being able to faithfully render it, or otherwise tempted by easy monetary gain on the coattails of more innovative material.

Cyberpunk crashed into science-fiction in the eighties and eventually faded out in the nineties as the world finally caught up to the fiction. William Gibson et al’s vision of tech-smart street people, decaying cities, dominating corporations and “dirty tech” was an all-too-common concern in the Internet-dominated nineties, and if only for this reason, cyberpunk faded out as a genre, though it radically re-energized SF in the process. (Indeed, some of the most successful SF works of the decade managed to incorporate cyberpunk’s native energy, manic invention and fascination with information technology as elements -not keystones- in a larger future tapestry. Interested scholars can look at the career of Bruce Sterling as a perfect illustration of this metamorphosis.)

In this context, Richard Paul Russo’s Destroying Angel stands as an example of a strictly average cyberpunk novel coming almost at the genre’s death march. It is not bad -or inferior- per se, but it doesn’t really exhibit any superior qualities.

Certainly, the plot is immediately familiar. In a downtrodden and rodent-ridden San Francisco, an ex-cop with a bad past manages to earn a living as a smuggler. But a serial murderer once thought dead reappears in the City and starts killing again, bringing back the ex-cop straight back to where he had quit the police force.

In a few words, it’s your standard serial killer plot, along with the flawed hero, noir atmosphere times ten stirred in with the usual cyberpunk gadgets. Any more ordinary and you’d get a book put together with excerpts of previously published stories.

But I’m being too harsh, because once you’re into the story, Destroying Angel is enjoyable in a strictly-entertainment fashion. The writing is pretty good, Russo creates an acceptable hard-boiled atmosphere, scenes move with a certain efficiency, and it’s hard not to sympathize with the tortured protagonist. Several nice touches, such as the opera-signing ghetto lady, enliven an otherwise routine narrative.

Only a somewhat useless subplot about a young girl named Sookie drags down the book from its straight-ahead narrative. (Sookie eventually becomes vital to the plot, but the rest of her story smacks of padding in order to obtain a novel-length manuscript.)

As with any genre, Science-Fiction’s got its blockbusters, its work of art, its true stinkers and total failures. Then there’s the overwhelming majority of the total SF production; wholly average novels that are neither really good or really bad. That’s where Destroying Angel goes; in the vast masses of the averages. To its credit, it doesn’t try to be anything more pretentious than it is; the writing is clean and obviously tries to be entertaining. It’s an acceptable thriller.

It’s worth a look if ever you come across it at a used book sale and if you don’t have anything more pressing to read. Otherwise, it’s one of those books you can safely skip without missing anything essential to the evolution of the genre. Hopefully, the book brought money to Russo and allowed him to buy a few nice things.

And sometimes, artistic innovation be damned, that’s all you can ask for: entertainment for the reader and money for the author.

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