Alexander Jablokov is one of my science fiction heroes. I read the novella version of "A Deeper Sea" back in 1989, and it inspired me to start reading SF short fiction again. His collection The Breath of Suspension took my own breath away, especially the story "Living Will," which is still on my list of all-time favorites. So I was delighted when, after a long hiatus, Alex released his new novel, Brain Thief.
It's a wild ride. If I say, "Dante meets Samuel Beckett meets Dashiell Hammett meets They Saved Hitler's Brain", you may get an idea of just how wild a ride it is. It starts out simply enough, with that useful protagonist, the very-smart-but-underinformed assistant, who responds to an ordinary call from his boss to meet her at a certain place. Then he gets conked on the head, and the boss is nowhere to be found. Tracking her down turns into a full-fledged investigation, complete with sardonic ex-cops, violent ex-cons, stalkers, geeky space kooks and abused damsels. Our hero moves from place to place to place, character to character, in a pattern that reminded me strongly of the Divine Comedy, from AI lab to 50s-era SF diner (where only the hamburgers are safe) to junkyard to suspended animation mausoleum, one step forward and two steps back. And that's before it really starts to get interesting. At root it's a thriller and a whodunit, but the scientific speculation never ceases. When we start to get a hint of what the heck is really going on, the hairs stand up on the back of the neck.
The science is a little misty in places, but I didn't care, I was having so much fun following the protag through his twisty little maze,
But what I love best is the dialogue. Alex's characters may be wittier than they have a right to be, but you don't notice. Best of all are his send-ups of science fiction itself. Here's one of my favorites:
". . . These guys, assholes every one of them, they kept promising . . . stuff. Things going on. Great advances. Constantly increasing speed, infinite power, all knowledge and cognition sliding down into an expanding Singularity that will suck everything up and remake the universe. And what do I actually get? The ability to learn the uninformed opinions of everyone in the world through round-cornered communications devices my fat fingers are too big to use."
You tell 'em.