Baen, 1997, 370 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-87763-1
Briefly: I like techno-thrillers and I love Hard SF, so it’s not a surprise if I’ve found Infectress to be such a pleasant read. Fast-paced action, adequate characters, a strong grasp of the SF devices and clever little touches makes this one of the best first novels I’ve read lately.
Baen books has a tradition of publishing novels more concerned about plasma guns than deep philosophical insights. I happen to like good action/adventure SF, so I’m always curious about the latest Baen offerings. Whatever high literary standards SF aspires to, there’s not denying that the genre’s true genesis comes from the pulse-pounding pulp-ish plots. Infectress probably won’t convert anyone already sold out to the “fine literature” crowd, but is solid entertainment for those who crave a few explosions in their fiction. Thriller fans will feel right at home with this smart tale of terrorism, secret agents and high-tech police work.
Infectress focuses on the character of Arabella, more commonly known as “Infectress”, a high-tech terrorist with a long history of bloody violence. On the other side of the plot, Scott McMichaels: Brilliant AI designer, he’s just created META: “the world’s true artificial intelligence.” When Infectress needs a lot of help for a little bio-toy of hers, you can be darn sure the three (four?) main characters are going to meet somewhere.
The problem with techno-thrillers has always been that they’re SF books done wrong: The technology is seen as so unsettling than in most cases, it’s forgotten/destroyed/censored by the end of the book. So it’s a bit of relief to see Infectress as an SF book that finally does a techno-thriller right: The action is there along with the technical details, the plot-driven story, the competent Heinleinian characters and the pro-military attitude.
This last characteristic is natural, since author Tom Cool is, says the tantalizing blurb, “a serving U.S. naval officer.” It’s refreshing to see a novel where the government and military forces both know their stuff, and aren’t there for yet another X-Files-type coverup.
The back-cover blurb goes on to say that Cool is “patently the most gifted naval officer to write science fiction since Robert A. Heinlein”. While this may be very true from a strict tautological viewpoint, (How many naval officers write SF?) there are at least grounds for comparison: Cool acknowledges Heinlein (even citing The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, P.82) and has a no-nonsense, practical style that echoes of the Early Heinlein. This book was pure candy to me; once started, it was difficult to stop reading. This is one book that I regret borrowing at my library… I’d rather keep it in my collection…. right besides the books of that other Tom C….
[January 1998: Bought it. Still fun to browse through.]
To be sure, this isn’t a perfect book. Some parts don’t quite mesh with the others (a philosophical discussion between two AI fragments is interesting, but a bit out-of-place.) and some plot points are predictable to the veteran espionage/thriller enthusiast. The villains were slightly over-the-top, but that’s part of the fun. I’m still not sure about Stephen Hickman’s cover illustration: It’s pretty, but…?
[January 1998: The cover ended up 4th in my “Best Cover Poll’97”…]
Despite all its good intentions, Infectress doesn’t have the extra “oomph” to propel it from simple action thriller to award-winning material. But the fact that it’s that close that’s heartening: The only thing more impressive than Infectress is its author. Tom Cool shows that he’s computer-literate, aware of the SF genre rules and able to write the kind of uncomplicated prose that a wide range of readers appreciate. It remains to be seen whether his next efforts will be as successful, but I’ll be reading whatever he wishes to write next with rapt attention. To quote the back cover blurb again: Commander Cool, we salute you!