Tag Archives: Philip Kerr

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.

The Grid, Philip Kerr

Seal, 1995, 446 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-7704-2740-5

Michael Crichton has made quite a name for himself with a series of science-fiction novels masquerading as thrillers. Despite simplistic characters, a cookie-cutter approach to plotting, clunky expository passages and a constant lack of subtlety in cheap techno-alarmism, he regularly sits atop bestseller lists. The reasons for this success boil down to his professionalism. While straightforward, his books are cleverly written for maximum readability and a veneer of sophistication. Even jaded readers who see through his intellectual hypocrisy (decrying technology while embracing it to a pornographic degree, for instance) have to admire his technical skill at building a solid structure and his flair for telling details and sympathetic characters.

Well, Philip Kerr is no Michael Crichton.

Stop me if you’ve heard this story before: In Los Angeles, a new high-tech skyscraper is days away from inauguration. But suddenly, a man dies-

—what? Yes, this is indeed a killer building story. Gee, we have seen this story before. Many times. No points for originality. Indeed, we even seem to recall a Crichton story or two… is it Jurassic Park or Westworld…? Or maybe RUNAWAY…? Hmm…

In any case, it’s obvious from the start that Kerr has a lot to learn in order to challenge Crichton. Believe it or not, his characters are actually less interesting and less sympathetic. In thriller terms, this means that you’ll even struggle to remember their names from one page to another. You may bitch and moan about the B-movie approach to characterisation that limits itself to clearly defined demographic groups, but in The Grid, everyone is pretty much a middle-aged white man. Who all speak alike. Worse; you’re given no reason to care for them. Aside from a policeman (I think) the three other protagonists include a tyrannical architect who callously fires people on a whim and an executive who cheats around with a Feng-Shui consultant.

Oh yeah; Feng-Shui. As with the Crichton novels, there’s heaps of semi-fascinating trivia more or less dumped in this novel’s 446 pages. A lot of it sticks out, such as Kerr’s typically melodramatic notions about Artificial Intelligence. In The Grid, our typically all-powerful computer is corrupted by… wait for it… a teenager’s video game. Naturally, the computer comes to see itself as a player whose goal is to kill all human enemies. Or something like that, because for dramatic purposes, all the victims have to be picked off one by one, which doesn’t appear to be a particularly efficient strategy.

The only semi-compelling reason to read The Grid is in this parade of gruesome death, handled about as imaginatively as in the fourth or fifth instalment of your typical slasher film series. We get elevator squishy, flickering lights causing a brain to burn itself out through epileptic seizures (that one was new to me, though no less ridiculous), drowning in water-filled bathrooms (!), boring electrocutions, pool-cleaning chemical warfare and a monotonous series of falls from great heights. Most of the time, you’ll end up cheering for the building given that it’s getting rid of one useless character after another. Still, it’s disturbing to see Kerr languorously describe naked dead women.

In short, there aren’t very many reasons to read The Grid. Except if you’re stuck in a building who wants to kill you for bonus points; it may make your final demise seem sweeter. I mean, look at what it’s made me do: write nice things about Michael Crichton!