Equations of Life by Simon Morden was first published in 2011. It is the first of a short series of novels called the Metrozone series featuring the main character, Samuil Petrovich. This novel won the 2012 Philip K. Dick Award. According to the Award’s website: “The Philip K. Dick Award is presented annually with the support of the Philip K. Dick Trust for distinguished science fiction published in paperback original form in the United States. The award is sponsored by the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society…”
This novel belongs to that gloriously alluring subgenre of science fiction sometimes referred to as “cyberpunk.” I put that in quotes because I am certain that many fans of science fiction have all sorts of opinions about the definition of that subgenre. But speaking to the general, and maybe somewhat superficial, reader of science fiction, cyberpunk has some identified members that everyone always mentions. Neuromancer – William Gibson (1984) is usually the first novel people discuss. But there’s others that one might like to know about such as Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson (1992), The Shockwave Rider – John Brunner (1975), and Islands in the Net – Bruce Sterling (1988). I reviewed Neuromancer on this blog, but also The Electric Church – by Jeff Somers (2007), which is another entry into cyberpunk.
Allegedly, according to the almighty Internet, the term itself was first used in context by Bruce Bethke in 1980. Sterling wrote that cyberpunk includes a “combination of lowlife and high tech” and I think this is very much the best broad-strokes definition. The genre tends to feature urban settings – sometimes in decay. The atmosphere has machinery, neon lights, gritty streets, and cyber-cafes/computer-ware. Usually, while the tech seems very futuristic, it often is cobbled together by loners, anti-establishment people, and/or hackers. See glimpses of the scenery in movies like: Hackers, Blade Runner, The Matrix, Ghost in the Shell, and Johnny Mnemonic.
So, one of the things that Morden gets absolutely correct is the setting. It feels exactly how it should for this novel. It does a lot of work for the novel. The setting is post-apocalyptic; in this case meaning some meta-scale event (likely a war) has reshaped the planet’s countries politically and geographically. Morden does really well in this book by keeping the details of the event vague and only alluded to. This works so well and is such a good idea that I feel he deserves extra praise for not getting too deep into the backstory. On a smaller scale, the main character, Petrovich, exists in the Metrozone. What is this? Its a rearranged, divided, torn-up resemblance to what may have been London; places like Hyde Park, Regent’s Park, and Piccadilly are referenced.
The book begins building the setting by appealing to all the reader’s senses. Petrovich describes the light, the smells, the noises.
“…all he could hear was the all-pervading hum of machines: those that made power, those that used it, pushing, pulling, winding, spinning, sucking, blowing, filtering, pumping, heating and cooling.” page 1
This is a deeply urban setting where the sounds you hear are machinery. And throughout the rest of chapter one and into the start of the second, it feels gritty, over-populated, and cityscaped. In chapter two is the event that is the catalyst for the whole novel.
Petrovich is a young Russian guy. He is very intelligent within mathematics (and likely computer programming and some physics). Petrovich isn’t his real name – and frankly, even by the end of the book, we do not know a lot of the “paperwork” things about him. The reader gets the impression that he is a mix of refugee and survivor. We do, however, know more about his personality, character, reasoning, and strengths and weaknesses. As I read, Petrovich first seemed overdone, his Russian-ness, his attitudes, his basic fiction-character archetype seemed too blatant. However, the character grew on me, and no matter what, I was rooting for him. What I liked about Morden’s writing of Petrovich is that several times, Petrovich’s decisions are very honest and realistic decisions – and not, as found sometimes in fiction books – plot devices, plot machining, or character misrepresentations.
While Petrovich is the main character, there is another character that readers will likely really enjoy. The entertaining and awesome nun, Sister Madeleine. I definitely want to know more about this whole situation. Nuns that are bodyguards? Or genetically-enhanced with Vatican-issued/approved firearms? Yes. Great. I’m all-in on this neat concept. I do have a smallish complaint about how a particular aspect of this character goes, though. Writing flaw? I am not sure. But I absolutely loved the parts wherein Maddy is driving the manual transmission vehicle.
The supporting characters, Pif, Grigori, Wong are all successes. I do not have any issue with them. At one point, Wong is surprising and deepens the cyberpunk/espionage element of the novel. I love how Pif is utterly disinterested and distant to the outrageous incidents that occur around her. It isn’t that she is ignorant and that is what makes her character so fascinating as well. She may be, also, one of the most honest characters (particularly regarding Petrovich) in the novel.
Morden shuffles the possibilities for villains and enemies really well. In cyberpunk, everyone and everything can be an enemy. The reader is, for the most part, never on solid ground deciding who the bad guys are. This is a good idea, but not easy to execute and I think the author did a good job with it.
All of the above are why I gave this novel four stars. However, there are some major issues. Often enough the sentence structure – or sentence placement itself – seems really off. Not just awkward, but as if totally incorrectly located. Its absolutely jarring when it occurs. It takes getting used to and I just kept reading, but there are bone-shaking sentences that don’t “work” with the prose. Luckily, they are not frequent enough to spoil much at all.
Another issue is that for the majority of the novel, literally nothing much seems to be happening except Petrovich going here and there in town and meeting with various people. Its a way, obviously, to introduce characters and motives. But honestly, it also feels redundant and after awhile, I did ask myself: is the plot actually going anywhere here?
I own books two and three of this series. I definitely want to read them. I think readers of cyberpunk will enjoy the novel because it is a solid entry into this subgenre. It is not a perfect novel, but it is highly entertaining and many elements (setting, characters, villainy) are well-done.