The Second Angel, Philip Kerr

Henry Holt, 1999, 392 pages, US$25.00 hc, ISBN 0-8050-5962-8

There are many ways to explain how much I hated Philip Kerr’s The Second Angel, but the most succinct one can be boiled down to only one word: Footnotes.

Sure, you say, footnotes can have a place in fiction. I won’t argue the point, especially, when I so recently lauded their use in Mark Z. Danielewski’ House of Leaves and Jasper Fforde’s Lost in a Good Book. But Philip Kerr isn’t writing post-modern or amusing fiction: The Second Angel tries to be a mystery/Science Fiction hybrid, with the genre plot serving as a template on which to hang erudite musings on the nature of blood. In 2069, the story goes, a devastating epidemic called P2 has contaminated a good proportion of the population, and clean blood (which can be used to cure the disease through transfusion) has become an valuable resource, so valuable that it’s used as collateral and “blood banks” (har-har) are now better-protected than money banks.

From its very premise, The Second Angel doesn’t even make sense: You cannot cure a blood disease by simple transfusion: given that blood is produced in the bone marrow, transfusion is, at best, an expensive reprieve. (Practical proof of this assertion is to be found in the number of AIDS victims nowadays) Kerr himself acknowledges this plot hole when a minor character is diagnosed with a different type of blood problem and transfusion is seen as an expensive way to delay the inevitable. But then he still goes on to base the rest of the novel on the idea that P2 can simply be cleaned away through a full transfusion. This is simple contempt from the author toward his audience, and once you latch on to the idea that Kerr thinks you’re a moron, supporting evidence is everywhere to be found.

Which brings us back to footnotes. The novel contains a copious number of them, inserted mostly for pedantic purposes, explaining things and historical details to the reader. At best, most footnotes bring nothing noteworthy to the reading experience. At worst, they’re simply dumb: Is it really useful to put a footnotes at “intel1 workers” if the footnote just explains “1: intelligent”? Worse: the footnotes are presumably inserted by the omniscient 2069-era narrator, intended to a contemporary audience. Alas, these footnotes (Hey! “Intel worker” means “Intelligent worker”!) would be strictly useless to a circa-2069 reader.

No, the footnotes are just the most visible aspect of Kerr’s worst trait as a writer: He’s not a storyteller as much as he’s a lecturer who’s openly disdainful of his audience. SF readers will have tons of fun with The Second Angel… not because it’s good, but because it’s so inept. Yet another example of a writer barging into a genre without doing any homework, Kerr painfully ignores SF’s basic storytelling techniques and the result is awful narration throughout the entire book: “As you know, Bob”-type explanatory conversations pepper the narrative until it overwhelms it, and the prose style distrust the audience’s intelligence so much that it takes pains to explain every single detail in exasperating detail. Rip a page off of this novel (better yet; rip them all off) and compare it to the self-assured storytelling of a true SF writer like Kim Stanley Robinson or Charles Stross, and Kerr looks like an arrogant fool who can’t be bothered to tell a story properly.

Never mind that his story doesn’t even hold interest in a strictest thriller-genre template: If you want complications, twists or even plausible motivations, you’re better off in a novel that’s not nearly so drunk with its own false erudition. Here, everything proceeds as planned without much in way of unusual complications. The overdone antagonist (How overdone? How about “necrophiliac rapist”?) dies well before the climax. Characters think nothing of nearly killing themselves to fake malfunctions that could be hacked through improper telemetry. After the run-through, the end heist is an exercise in tediousness. Even the framing device is a seriously lame one, with a revelation that’s more exasperating than illuminating.

That’s not even mentioning the actual mistakes every half-dozen pages. Kerr sets out to write a novel packed with scientific details, but then he proceeds to screw up half of them. You could wipe the floor with my knowledge of advanced biology, but it doesn’t take a Nobel prize winner to figure out that a character can’t have his hair turn white in a matter of minutes. (Nor is this an oversight: Kerr mentions it two or three times afterwards.) Stupid physics mistakes betray Kerr’s lack of basic common sense over and over again, from a false need for super-refrigeration units for space travel (useless even today) to an idiotic distinction between liquid and solid excreta as a source of space hazards. (Here’s a hint, Kerr: Water freezes) The hyperbaric stuff doesn’t make a single PSI of sense. The search query stuff is hilarious. The novel even takes a trip in psychic lalaland near the end, with an easily-guessable plot development stolen straight (and badly) from Larry Niven’s “Gil the ARM” short stories. And let’s not get into the economics of The Second Angel. Not when blood is a renewable resource. Not when blood problems are still a problem despite fairly strong and widely-available nanotechnology. Not when vault have “labyrinths” to deter thieves (You’d think that the authorized users would want a way to quickly get in and out of the vault) Not when… oh, forget it: This, despite the cut-and-pasted erudition and the fancy vocabulary, is a deeply dumb novel.

Worse; it’s a deeply dumb novel from someone who think he’s much more clever than the very readers who are supposed to buy his stuff. Condescension and disgust drips from every page of The Second Angel like water from a leaky drain: Imagine Kerr as the worst teacher you’ve ever had, haranguing his so-designated inferiors from a pulpit, mistakes infusing every second statement he makes. You can read some novels and not understand them; you can read some novels and not care for them; but only a select few novels provoke fully-informed loathing, and Kerr’s pathetic attempt at a SF thriller falls squarely in this category.

Some may protest that these criticisms are unfair, that Kerr was attempting a philosophical reflection on the nature of blood, that The Second Angel is best seen as a high-tech fable. To which I have to answer that if what you want to write is fuzzy philosophy, you shouldn’t be peppering your novel with technical details explained in luscious detail. That’s just asking for trouble, and a dissection from readers with a far more accurate sense of reality. It doesn’t help that SF, as a genre, has already gone over the metaphorical and literal consequences of AIDS-like diseases… at least a decade before Kerr set out to write his own take on things.

Keep in mind that this isn’t the first Kerr novel to fail so spectacularly: While I could tolerate A Philosophical Investigation on its own terms, The Grid was an atrocious mess of a techno-thriller whose lack of success is only exceeded by The Second Angel. If nothing else, Kerr’s monstrosity can be dissected as case study of the worst mistakes in writing SF. The back cover blurb of the hardcover edition says that the novel “assaults your ignorance”: you can’t make up quotes like that.

It’s certainly okay to hate him as an author. After all, he doesn’t think much of you as a reader.

4 thoughts on “The Second Angel, Philip Kerr”

  1. Hi Christian

    Thank you for this wonderfully scathing review. I am NOT a science-ficianado (my neologism for the day!) but was willing to give Mr Kerr a go on the strength of his enjoyable Bernie Gunther series. I skip read The Grid a few days ago, and found it mildly entertaining, but I’ve changed my mind about trying any other Kerrs – for now. There are so many really good books out there, why waste precious time on dross?


    1. Hi Robin,

      I’ve heard good things about the Bernie Gunter series as well, but as far as SF-tinged thrillers are concerned, I’m zero-out-of-three for Kerr with A Philosophical Investigation, The Grid and The Second Angel. I suppose he has his fans, and that’s fine –I’m just not among them. There are, as you say, so many other good books out there!

  2. I had just read this book (picked it up from a book sale) and I agree with what you say. I hated the narration and footnotes and mostly skimmed through them. While I could understand most of it due to my background in microbiology, I thought that they were unnecessary. Sometimes I felt like it was there (and the othe lengthy scientific explanations) to increase his page count. Or maybe it was there to overwhelm people so readers could hang on to his every word like it was the absolute truth.

    I didn’t catch on to all of the mistakes but I did notice some of them. Overall it was a confusing read. Towards the end, I practically skipped most of the narration and just read the dialogues. The simulation pages was just painful. I think I totally skipped thise to be honest. And yes, that is where it suddenly went from scifi to fantasy (or supernatural?) I’ve heard of hair going white because of trauma but only in anime and never on a book that’s bombarding you with scientific words.

    1. You summarized it better than I could: “a book that’s bombarding you with scientific words” really isn’t the same thing as a science-fiction novel, let alone a good one.

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