Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 27 (3/2) -- Brain Thief by Alexander Jablokov

Alexander Jablokov published five SF novels between 1991 and 1998: all at a reasonably high level of ambition and achievement, all from the same publisher, all only moderately successful and renowned. Aside from the point about ambition and achievement, and the particular details, that could have described a thousand mildly successful writers of genre fiction: a decade in the trenches, only moderate return for his efforts, and a quiet disappearance. But, luckily, that wasn't the end of the story, and Jablokov returned -- after a longer time away than the length of his original professional career -- with this new novel from a different publisher about a month ago.

Brain Thief seems to be only mildly SF for most of its length; it's set in present-day or near-future Massachusetts, and nothing the reader sees is radically SFnal or unlikely, though much of the tech is apparently not currently extant. (Actually, given that the go-go tech boom years appear to still be on, this might even be a slightly alternate present or recent past.) Bernal Haydon-Rumi, the viewpoint character, is the assistant and general factotum to a wealthy woman, Muriel Inglis, who funds various unlikely and odd projects, and he's just returned to her home in Cheriton to report on his last trip when the book opens.

What follows is like nothing so much as a Raymond Chandler plot filtered through a few decades of feminism; Bernal doesn't manage to catch up to Muriel -- who, incidentally, is prone to communicating via vague and allusive notes, which can be a bit too arch for a realistic novel about a business relationship -- before she disappears mysteriously, and spends the rest of the novel alternately looking for her and looking into one particular local business that she funded. Along the way, a series of women -- all of them tougher than he is, and most of whom beat him up, outfox him, or just shove him around -- complicate the picture.

The local business, Hess Tech, was run by Madeleine Ungaro, who has also disappeared; she was attempting to build an AI-controlled multi-legged exploration robot for alien planets. The robot, Hesketh, is now wandering the nearby countryside, on a complicated semi-deterministic path, chased by weirdos of various types: from the Enigmatic Ascent triumvirate, who want to help it go into space and achieve its destiny, to the ex-cop Charis Fenn, who just wants to destroy the thing. Whether or not Hesketh has intelligence of any kind, artificial or not, is another thing that Bernal has no clue about for the longest time.

To be honest, it's not just the women who beat up on Bernal; he gets clobbered in the first chapter by the usually gentlemanly local cat burglar The Conoisseur, and other men get the better of him as well -- though he does manage not to be decapitated by the local serial killer The Bowler. But it's particularly noticeable that this series of events sees him running across the same few women several times -- Charis; tow-truck driver Patricia; Yolanda MacParland, obsessed with the failed cryogenic storage firm Long Voyage, which is connected to the case; and low-level thugettes Prelate and Vervain -- and they all get the better of him time and again.

Somehow, Bernal does survive the events of Brain Thief to put all of the pieces together -- to figure out what happened to Madeleine and Muriel, to explain most of the victims of the Bowler, to understand what Hesketh is and where it's headed, and to determine who several intermediate villains are along the way. And the explanations are satisfyingly science-fictional; there isn't some creep with a Hesketh remote-control or an international crime syndicate behind it all. (The title may help some clueful readers figure things out ahead of Bernal, but of course he doesn't have the advantage of knowing that he's a character in a story.)

But that doesn't change the fact that Brain Thief is a caper book that mostly consists of the main character getting worked over; when he's not physically bested, he's out-thought and out-maneuvered, and it can be difficult to continue to admire this sad sack of a hero as he gets his arm twisted (literally) by a woman for the fourth chapter in a row. All of the characters are believable and interesting, with the possible exception of Bernal himself, who is a bit thin and too universally fumble-fingered. (Perhaps it's just that the things that he's good at don't matter much in the course of this book, but he seems awfully wimpy and useless for the right-hand man to a major venture capitalist; we do keep finding out new things that he's not all that good at right up to the end of the book.)

Brain Thief is a solid caper novel, and reliably entertaining; it reads a bit like a soberer north-eastern Carl Hiassen. But the one-damn-thing-after-another structure feels repetitive after a while, and it really is hard to warm up to Bernal's consistent incompetence. Still, I hope this signals that Jablokov really is back in the field, and that it will be a lot fewer than twelve years before we see another new novel from him.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: The Mendoza Line - The Lethal Temptress
via FoxyTunes

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