Friday, August 22, 2008

Book Review: Slanted Jack by Mark L. Van Name

Slanted jackI became aware of Mark L. Van Name more or less by chance. I was browsing at the bookstore not long ago when I stumbled upon the newly released paperback version of Van Name’s debut novel from Baen Books, One Jump Ahead. Nothing else at the store was really grabbing my attention that day, and I didn’t want to go home empty-handed, so I bought it out of curiosity. It paid off, and I ended up enjoying the novel a great deal. Slanted Jack is the sequel to One Jump Ahead, continuing the story of Jon Moore and Lobo. Both books are self-contained stories, and those who haven’t read One Jump Ahead can read Slanted Jack without being lost or confused.

The story is set in the far future. Human settlements have spread out from Earth through a series of mysterious interstellar jump gates discovered by humanity, linking together numerous habitable worlds. Rival governments and corporations compete politically, economically, and sometimes militarily for dominance of new worlds and the wealth they bring. Jon Moore, a courier and former mercenary (and the book’s narrator), is enjoying some time off when he is approached by his old associate, the brilliant conman known as Slanted Jack. Jack presents a young boy named Manu Chang, who Jack says is descended from inhabitants of Pinkelponker (the captain of the generation ship that first colonized it made the mistake of letting his young son choose the name), a planet that has been quarantined since a catastrophic mishap involving nanotechnology research laid waste to the planet over a century ago. The inhabitants of Pinkelponker were rumored to be developing strange abilities, and Jack says Manu has powers of precognition. The leader of a strange religion based around Pinkelponker wants a chance to speak with Manu, and will pay handsomely for an interview. All Jack wants is a little help from Jon providing security to make sure the cult doesn’t try anything.

Jon knows better than to trust anything Jack says, but he can’t say no: Jon’s deepest secret is that he himself is a native of Pinkelponker, kept alive for over a hundred years thanks to the nanotechnology experiments performed on him as a child. He can’t turn down anything that might be a link to his lost home, and he doesn’t want to see Manu becoming a test subject for some bizarre cult. Unfortunately, what should be a straightforward job goes bad, and Jon finds himself in a dangerous web involving the cult, a vicious crime boss, Slanted Jack, illegal arms deals, and the Expansion Coalition government.

Jon’s conscience won’t let him abandon Manu to the designs of his pursuers, and he needs a way to dissuade his own enemies, preferably without a bloodbath. He is accompanied by a woman named Maggie Park, who finds herself drawn into events when she helps save Manu’s life when the interview went awry. Also with him, of course, is Lobo, the artificial intelligence of Jon’s heavily armed ship, and his closest ally. He’ll need all the help he can get.

Slanted Jack is a highly enjoyable story and a fine follow-up to One Jump Ahead. It successfully combines action, humor, an interesting setting, and some very enjoyable characters. A lot of my reading is of authors who are on the dark or grim side of things, and while Slanted Jack has some dark moments, it is one of the most refreshingly fun books I’ve read lately. It feels good-natured, for lack of a better term, in a way a lot of other modern science fiction doesn’t.

Virtually every device in human space, from military vehicles to household appliances to vending machines, has at least a rudimentary artificial intelligence, communicating with other machines electronically or at ultrasonic frequencies. Most of them are not very bright, and spend most of their time complaining about their owners or bickering with other machines. This is important to the story, since Jon has the unusual ability to listen in at their frequencies and communicate with them, which often provides a valuable source of information- most people don’t watch what they say in front of the coffee machine, after all. Van Name also uses it very effectively for humor- this is the first book I’ve read in a long time that has actually made me laugh out loud. My particular favorite is a point in the story where Jon visits a sporting goods store and has a run-in with a megalomaniacal rocket luge ranting at length about his superiority over other, lesser luges.

(This sort of thing is why I love to write about science fiction. What other subject would give me an opportunity to type something like “megalomaniacal rocket luge?”)

While the book has a great deal of action and is often quite exciting, it is for the most part a good deal less violent than most modern action/adventure science fiction. Despite his possession of a military surplus combat vehicle with a rather bellicose AI, Jon tries very hard to achieve his goals without killing people. This might make the book a good choice for younger readers, or for people who want an action-oriented story but are put off by the amount of violence in authors like Neal Asher or David Drake.

I liked the characters a lot. Hero and narrator Jon Moore is an enjoyable and interesting person, and the interactions between Jon and Lobo work well. Slanted Jack himself is by turns amusing and infuriating, and entertaining either way. There are some interesting minor characters, such as the Zyun brothers, mercenary triplets with eerily synchronized minds, and George, the aforementioned megalomaniacal luge. Maggie is also an interesting character, and some of the later scenes involving her are quite poignant.

I would definitely recommend this book to science fiction fans, especially those who want something that isn’t fluff but still offers a break from some of the darker, grimmer material that’s very common right now. If you like fun action/adventure science fiction, you’ll be well-rewarded by Slanted Jack .

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