Paul McAuley (blog, twitter)
I started this sort of randomly. I mean, I certainly intended to read it next, but I was on my way to the bathroom (tmi?) and saw it sitting there on my desk and just sort of brought it along. Then we had more than a foot of snow dumped on us so I kept reading. I don’t know what it is about the novel that prompted me to keep reading. I think that it had something to do with the sort-of wearied spy/two old soldiers talking dialogue early in the novel. There is a certain undeniable attraction to the “I’m too old for this.” mentality in protagonists that I sometimes find hard to resist.
Cowboy Angels is sort of like Sliders but instead of dumb graduate student it was spies that had discovered a way to hop realities. These spies don’t get lost but instead became part of an initiative to create an alliance of America’s across multiple realities. Of course, all of that happened before Cowboy Angels started. The novel opens with a regime change predicated on the desire to end the violence and resource drain caused by the active pursuit the so-called Pan-American Alliance. Agreements are broken and those original spies, the Cowboy Angels, are more-or-less hung out to dry. Fast forward several years later and retired CIA Agent Stone is living out his retirement in a prehistoric sheaf (alternate reality) running a hunting lodge when he is called back in by The Company to track down his former partner who has apparently been on a murder spree targeting the dopel’s (alternate reality versions) of a mathematician. Almost against his will Stone is dragged back into the field.
What unfolds is, in many ways, a by-the-numbers thriller with the added flair of reality hopping. Where your old-school Cold War type story featured covert operations in other countries to help advance American needs and goals Cowboy Angels instead transplants those covert operations to alternate versions of America. Rather than exploit foreign countries we are instead exploiting alternate versions of ourselves. As Stone returns into the fold to seek out his former partner the Company is current dealing with the fallout from those covert ops, no longer actively pursuing new alliances but rather looking to improve conditions with pre-existing “client sheaves.” It is a fascinating take on a sort of a not-quite post Cold War landscape. It provides a similar type of tension but with a neat twist.
Of course Stone’s partner, Tom, has his own secrets and once we learn that our characters are stuck inside a temporal loop things become a bit more interesting. Bizarrely, Cowboy Angels is the second novel involving time-travel I’ve read this month. Even more bizarre after having listened to a presentation on Archon, a time-travel RTS, in the same month. I sort-of feel like I should embrace this serendipity and seek out some more time-travel stories to read. McAuley though doesn’t focus too much on the how or the why of time-travel in Cowboy Angels. This is a decidedly action-oriented sci-fi adventure more concerned with how our characters deal with this new monkey wrench. There is a bit hand-waving involved with that lack of explanation, but it is a decidedly creative hand-waving that reminded me (in a very very tangential way) of the first season of Babylon 5.
Like McAuley’s The Quiet War, Cowboy Angels, is a novel with a big idea whose existence is the axis upon which society turns. While The Quiet War featured a slower pace Cowboy Angels takes out of the gate a full on sprint and never lets up. I found Cowboy Angels a difficult book to put down and could probably read about trips through alternate America’s all day long. There is enough backstory and sidestory in Cowboy Angels to fill a whole series of novels; though neither ever detract from the plot or the action and are only used to provide context. While I was underwhelmed somewhat by The Quiet War I had such a great time reading Cowboy Angels that I’ll certainly be looking forward to what McAuley comes out with next (or, you know, what he has come out with already but which has been decidedly ignored by dumb American publishers).
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