Murder in the Solid State, Wil McCarthy

Tor, 1996 (1998 reprint), 277 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-812-55392-6

Good examples of Science-Fiction crossed with Crime Fiction are nearly as numerous as crossovers between SF and Thrillers. Many SF authors have written a few mystery novels (Isaac Asimov, Stephen R. Donaldson, etc…) and for some reason, (solidarity among the ghettoes?) readers of SF are often fans of crime fiction. The basic plotline of thrillers, (One man confronting powerful forces conspiring against him!) on the other hand, has always been a natural way to develop the bigger-than nature plots of most grandiose SF. Murder in the Solid State will suck you in with a murder mystery, but ultimately evolves in your basic near-future conspiracy thriller.

It all begins, appropriately enough, at a nanotechnology scientific conference. David Sanger is a young physicist with things to prove to the world. Shortly after the beginning of the conference, he finds himself arguing against a rather unpleasant older scientist widely despised by his peers. Heated words eventually lead to sharp weapons and before long David is sword-fighting (!) against his nemesis. His martial arts training takes over and he wins the fight, but finds himself in custody the following morning as the older scientist is murdered during the night… A hundred pages in the novel, David’s most trusted friends turn against him and he finds himself tangled in something much bigger than just a murder.

In time, the “Solid State” of the title assumes its full political importance and it’s a bit of a surprise to find us cleverly slipped a message about the dangerous implications of comfortable safety. Like many pure-SF writers, McCarthy espouses libertarian (or at least vaguely anti-government) tendencies but exhibits them more carefully than most of his peers.

One of the cover blurbs is James Patrick Kelly saying “Think ‘Hitchcock meets Heinlein’” and the comparison is apt. The narrative is lean and rarely pauses for its breath. The future technology is described plausibly, with some attention for the social impact of said technology. The protagonist is suitably sympathetic, with the result that we keep on rooting for him even as he is forced to commit unpleasant acts. The narration is suitably paced and the reader’s interest rarely flags.

But if Murder in the Solid State is a perfectly competent thriller with the added interest of being peppered with solid nanotechnological details, it’s also obvious that it’s a bit pedestrian, a bit… well… ordinary. After the whirlwind first hundred pages, the novels comfortably settles down in a classical thriller structure, and it doesn’t take a lot of perspicacity to intuit that the protagonist is eventually going to confront the Bad Guy.

But it doesn’t really matter, because even if not every book can be a classic, we can always use another good competent SF adventure. And Murder in the Solid State more than proves that Wil McCarthy is an author worth examining. Who knows what else he’ll come up with next?

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