Gollancz, 2003, 291 pages, C$24.95 tpb, ISBN 0-575-07533-3
Welcome to a nightmare: A near future United States of Europe where one can’t be fired from any job for reason of age, race, creed… or incompetence. In a place where everything becomes unreliable and approximative, protagonist “Harry Salt” is a detective surrounded by incompetence. There’s just one very very important exception to this level of incompetence: The very competent killer who’s leaving a track of bodies from Rome to Eastern Europe by way of Paris.
This is not, of course, a serious novel. Rob Grant is an ex-member of the “Red Dwarf” comedy troupe, and this stand-alone novel reflects a delicious sense of humour that owes much to Sheckley and Adams. Runaway bureaucracies may be bad enough, but you’ve got real problems when the rot of inefficiency trickles down to even the most average janitor.
Harry Salt’s life is not easy: He’s lucky when his plane lands at the right airport (baggage is another matter) or when his hotel room contains both a bed and a sink. Renting a car can be a lengthy adventure, especially when even the anti-theft device has been stolen. Salt’s U.S.E. may be a few years in the future (complete with automated cars and traffic signalization that can make it impossible to leave Paris), but the comic jabs are straight out of today’s anxieties.
Stylistically, Incompetence riffs off the usual first-person tough-guy narration. “Harry Salt” (no real name provided) is one tough hombre, and he never lets you forget it. Grant overuses hyperbole as if he feared their criminalization, but it fits with the tall-tale tone of the average PI narration. Like most comedies, this isn’t a book that will take you a lot of time to read.
It’s a measure of the novel’s lack of seriousness that the plot is nothing but an excuse on which to hang comic vignettes. See Harry pursue devious criminal; see Harry argue with service personnel; see Harry run for the train. It’s pretty good except when it runs too long, and unfortunately the novel does have a tendency to overstay its welcome, especially toward the end. Some of the comic vignettes work (I was particularly charmed by Captain Zuccho, a policeman with rather serious anger management problems) but many simply run too long: The entire train sequence is a perfect example of a one-note joke dragged on for twenty pages. It doesn’t get much better over the course of the drawn-out conclusion, which tones down the humour and add in useless details.
Not that this is the only thing wrong about the conclusion, in which the novel’s light-hearted tone somehow ends up swapped with a pretty serious conspiracy theory involving competitive geopolitics. Readers will frown at the conclusion and wonder where that came from. But perhaps it’s not such a surprise considering a story featuring an overly competent murderer: Incompetence can be funny if it’s not happening to you; murder is rarely funny even in the abstract.
Still, Incompetence is a laugh for most of its duration, and that’s not bad by itself. Humorous SF is still a fairly rare phenomenon, and this novel is a clue as to why: Short and yet too long, amusing and yet a bit too serious by the end, structured around individual vignettes that aren’t always coherently strung together. The level of individual incompetence exhibited in the novel would quickly bring civilization to a halt, to say nothing of preventing underground prison hellscrapers… but it’s not a good idea to question the coherence of an absurd humour novel.
Pleasant but not exactly unforgettable, Incompetence will fit the bill if you’re looking for a few laughs and an undemanding read. The prose has its pleasures, and so do some of the individual sequences. Otherwise, well, it’s a lot like your average sitcom: A good way to spend time, but nothing worth considering the next day.