Review: “Change Agent” By Daniel Suarez (Novel)

Well, I thought that I’d take a break from horror fiction and read a sci-fi novel that I’ve been meaning to read for at least a month or two. I am, of course, talking about the second-hand copy of Daniel Suarez’s 2017 novel “Change Agent” that I found online when I was looking for cyberpunk-style novels.

Although this novel is actually a mixture of biopunk, cyberpunk and thriller fiction, the idea behind it seemed interesting enough for me to get a copy – even if I didn’t get round to reading it for quite a few weeks.

So, let’s take a look at “Change Agent”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2017 Dutton (US) paperback edition of “Change Agent” that I read.

Set in 2045, the novel begins in an illegal gene editing clinic run by a company called Trefoil. Two lawyers, Mr and Mrs Cherian, are visiting the clinic in order to look at some possible improvements for the baby they are planning to have. Although the couple are a little uncertain about everything, the clinic’s augmented reality presentation and the fact that all of their friends are having enhanced babies wins them over. However, before they can sign up for anything, there is an armed police raid on the facility. In the chaos, Mrs. Cherian is shot by a police officer.

Meanwhile, in Singapore, a programmer for Interpol called Kenneth Durand spends some time with his family before talking to one of the detectives, Michael Ji Yu-Chang, he works with. Kenneth has heard about the raid on the clinic and feels responsible for Mrs. Cherian’s death because he wrote the algorithm that allowed the authorities to locate the clinic. After some discussion about this, they report to the HQ of Interpol’s Genetic Crimes Division, where a visiting FBI agent called Marcotte gives a presentation about a mysterious human trafficking gang called the Huli Jing that have also been hoovering up as much genetic data as they can get their hands on.

On the way back from work, Kenneth’s self-driving taxi has a mysterious error, forcing him to get out and walk to the nearest MRT rail station. On the way there, someone in the crowd injects him with something. He has a violent allergic reaction and falls into a coma. When he wakes up in hospital several weeks later, his Interpol colleagues are there… to question him. Whatever was in that syringe has turned him into an exact duplicate of the leader of the Huli Jing, a very wanted criminal…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that you shouldn’t judge it by the first seventy pages or so. Although the novel is fairly slow to start and begins with a lot of background stuff, ethical debates etc… it does turn into a more compelling and faster-paced thriller novel after this 🙂 The best way to describe this novel is that it’s a bit like what you’d get if you mixed certain William Gibson, Clive Cussler and Alex Garland novels together with the movie “Face/Off” and the TV series “Burn Notice” 🙂 Yes, it’s a bit cheesy, preachy and/or contrived at times, but it is still a reasonably compelling sci-fi thriller.

Still, I should probably start by talking about this novel’s sci-fi elements. Although the novel contains quite a lot of backstory about how the growth in synthetic biology has reshaped industry, geopolitics etc… it is very much a 2010s sci-fi novel. In other words, this novel includes, explores and/or name-checks almost every piece of “futuristic” modern technology it can (eg: CRISPR, drones, cryptocurrencies, lab-grown meat, self-driving cars, augmented reality, big data etc…). Whilst this lends the novel a certain degree of realism and the author has clearly done a lot of research, I can’t help but get the feeling that this is the kind of novel that probably won’t feel very futuristic in 20-30 years’ time – which is probably both a good and a bad thing.

This novel is very much an “issues”-based sci-fi novel too, with the story’s biopunk elements (eg: gene editing etc…) being used to discuss topics like nature, medical ethics and – most prominently – the nature of identity. Although some elements of this are fairly intriguing, the novel does sometimes come across as a bit heavy-handed and preachy at times.

Whether it is the scenes of psychological horror and body horror related to genetic editing or how the fact that people are able to change their bodies is described as a way for people to regain privacy in a surveillance-filled world and then the only examples of this shown to the reader are criminals using it to get away with stuff, this novel does have a slight conservative cautiousness to it. Something further hammered home by the rather moralistic main character.

In addition to these futuristic issues, the novel also discusses all sorts of realistic issues too. These are handled slightly better and they include things like climate change, human trafficking, refugees, economic inequality, modern slavery etc… The novel is able to make points about these things reasonably well and they also add a certain degree of grim realism that helps to counterbalance all of the novel’s more glamourous and/or “over the top” elements.

In terms of the novel’s thriller elements – they are reasonably good, even if they aren’t always used to their full potential. Although the novel takes a while to really get started, it is a compelling one that lends itself well to binge-reading 🙂 The premise of someone being framed for a series of crimes and having to go on the run is an inherently suspenseful one and, in the earlier parts of the novel, this is used to it’s full potential – with Kenneth having to hide, run, think etc.. in order to survive in a hostile world. This is also paired with some well-written action-thriller moments, some scenes focusing on the Interpol detectives trying to catch Kenneth and some tense scenes set in the criminal underworld.

However, the grippingly nail-biting tension of Kenneth being just one small mistake away from death is at it’s very best for only a small part of the novel. After a while, Kenneth just teams up with various sympathetic criminals who almost always seem to have some contrived way to solve whatever problem he’s facing (shark-shaped submarine, anyone?) or somewhere for him to hide. Yes, this allows for various spectacular set pieces, Clive Cussler-style action sequences and visits to lots of interesting locations, but you don’t always get the grippingly suspenseful feeling that Kenneth is surviving by his wits alone. Still, it is a reasonably fun rollercoaster ride of a story nonetheless.

In terms of the characters, they are a bit of a mixed bag. This is one of those novels where some of the supporting characters and/or villains are more interesting than the main character. Some of the side-characters (eg: Frey, Otto, Marcotte etc..) are interesting, complex people who have a real feeling of personality and help to add extra life to the novel. On the other hand, Kenneth is a bit of a generic “moralistic”, “family man”, ex-military and/or detective “hero” character who, whilst he has emotions and backstory, isn’t really as interesting as several of the side-characters.

As for the writing, it is really good. This novel’s third-person narration is “matter of fact” enough to both make the story very readable and keep things moving at a decent pace, whilst also being formal and descriptive enough to add atmosphere and to make the story’s locations (eg: Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Myanmar) feel vivid and realistic.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is a mixed bag. At 398 pages in length, this novel is a little on the longer side of things – but I ended up binge-reading about two-thirds of it in a single day. Likewise, whilst the pacing of the earlier parts of the novel is a bit on the slow side (with lots of backstory, debates, scientific explanations etc…), when the novel remembers that it is a thriller novel, then things improve significantly. The rest of the novel is this wonderfully compelling mixture of suspense, drama and fast-paced action, with these elements being juggled in a way that ensures that they never wear out their welcome.

All in all, whilst this novel isn’t a perfect one, it was still reasonably fun to read. Yes, it takes a while to really become gripping, the main character isn’t as interesting as the side characters and the story can also be a bit preachy too. But, if you can overlook these flaws, then you’ll get to enjoy a compelling thriller novel that also includes a lot of interesting “realistic” sci-fi, atmospheric locations and other good stuff.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would just about get a four.

Review: “Rosewater” By Tade Thompson (Novel)

Well, I was still in the mood for some hardboiled fiction, so I thought that I’d take a look at a second-hand copy of Tade Thompson’s 2016 cyberpunk-influenced sci-fi thriller novel “Rosewater” that I’ve been meaning to read for a couple of weeks.

So, let’s take a look at “Rosewater”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2018 Orbit (UK) paperback edition of “Rosewater” that I read.

The novel is set in the Nigerian city of Rosewater in 2066. This city is only about ten years old, having been built around a mysterious alien bio-dome that fell to Earth. These alien visitations to Earth have not only had a major effect on geopolitics (with Russia, China and Africa becoming more powerful) but have also had a biological effect on the planet too. In addition to occasionally healing the sick, reanimating the dead, introducing new lifeforms and providing free electricity, the alien bio-dome has also caused some humans to become “sensitives”, or psychics.

Kaaro is a cynical, world-weary sensitive who works as part of a human firewall for a bank in Rosewater. Every day, he reads vintage novels to create interference to prevent rogue psychics from hacking into the bank. His co-worker Bola insists on setting him up on a date with her friend Aminat during a visit to one of the dome’s healing sessions. But, during the date, he receives a text from Section 45 – a mysterious branch of the country’s security services that Kaaro secretly works for. So, reluctantly, he goes over to their offices and extracts information from the mind of a tortured prisoner.

But, soon, strange things start happening. Kaaro gets psychic visits from a mysterious woman called Molara, his boss warns him about Aminat, some criminals are after him and, even worse, several of the other psychics start dying from a mysterious disease….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it was a lot of fun to read 🙂 Imagine a combination of a spy/action/detective thriller novel, Jeff Noon’s “Vurt”, a William Gibson novel, Greg Bear’s “Blood Music“, Eric Brown’s “Bengal Station” trilogy, the irreverent time-jumping weirdness of something like Robert Brockway’s “The Unnoticeables” and maybe the “Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex” TV series and this might give you some vague clue of what to expect 🙂

So, I should probably start by talking about this novel’s sci-fi elements – which are really awesome 🙂 Not only is there a lot of good worldbuilding, showing all of the effects that alien contact has had on Earth, but it is also one of those interesting cyberpunk-style novels which doesn’t actually involve the internet.

Like with the hallucinogenic feathers in Jeff Noon’s “Vurt”, this is a novel that features cyberspace-like scenes that take place within a psychic space called the “Xenosphere” (a traditional VR internet called “Nimbus” exists too, but it is just a background detail).

Not only does this lend the novel a slightly fantastical quality, but it is kept firmly in the sci-fi genre thanks to the inclusion of an actual scientific explanation for it and – by extension – a series of rules surrounding it. And, since this novel relies on the mind (rather than machines) for it’s virtual worlds, it can be a lot more surreal, interesting and just generally creative with these scenes.

Not only is this novel’s worldbuilding absolutely excellent but, like the best sci-fi, it is also completely original too. The aliens are quite literally alien, with the characters knowing enough about them to live near them but not knowing enough for them to be intriguingly mysterious at the same time. Likewise, I cannot praise the atmosphere and descriptions of the city of Rosewater itself highly enough. It’s a really interesting place 🙂

In keeping with the cyberpunk genre, the setting also contains some dystopian elements – however, in an interesting twist, they don’t come from the usual mega-corporations but from more realistic things like government, outdated legislation, mob justice, crime etc… instead. In other words, this novel feels really original 🙂

The novel’s thriller elements are also brilliant too. Not only is this novel written in a fast-paced way, but it also makes excellent use of things like suspense, intrigue, secrets, mini-cliffhangers, mystery and a few action sequences to keep everything compelling.

Another awesome thing about this novel is how it mixes the immediacy of first-person narration with the traditional thriller technique of multiple plot threads. Most first-person thrillers that attempt this use the awkward device of multiple first-person narrators – but this novel instead uses a series of flashback chapters set a decade or two earlier to provide a second plot thread without breaking the immersion by switching the narrator. These time jumps are also very clearly signposted (not only do they tell you the date and location, but they are also marked as “Then” or “Now”) which prevents them from being confusing or breaking the flow of the story 🙂

Plus, this novel also contains horror elements too 🙂 Seriously, these were a really brilliant surprise. In addition to some chilling moments of dystopian horror, there’s also a good amount of psychological horror, a few moments of gory horror, some surreal body horror, a brilliantly intense scene of monster horror and – even better – zombie horror too 🙂 Even though the zombies don’t show up that often, the fact that this novel blends the cyberpunk and zombie genres is really awesome 🙂

In terms of the characters, this novel is reasonably good. The narrator, Kaaro, gets the most characterisation and he’s a classic cyberpunk protagonist of the morally-ambiguous, world-weary and cynical type (who, like Deckard from “Blade Runner”, also works for an evil police force). But, thanks to his narration and intriguing backstory (and a few well-placed moments of humour), he comes across as a really interesting, realistic and surprisingly sympathetic character. Although the novel’s other characters get slightly less characterisation, they seem reasonably realistic and there’s enough characterisation for you to care about what happens to them.

As for the writing, it is excellent 🙂 This novel’s first-person narration is written in the kind of fast-paced, personality-filled way that you’d expect from a good sci-fi or horror thriller novel 🙂 Not only that, the narration also reads like a more understated and streamlined version of the kind of classic hardboiled cyberpunk narration that you’d expect from a writer like William Gibson 🙂 Plus, the narration still manages to remain descriptive enough to add atmosphere and bring the story’s settings to life too 🙂

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is really good. At 390 pages, it’s a little on the longer side of things – but is written in the kind of fast-paced way that won’t make this too much of an issue. The novel is paced like a thriller – with multiple plot threads, compelling suspense, lots of dramatic moments etc..- which also helps to avoid some of the slowness that is typically associated with science fiction. Plus, although this novel is very clearly the first novel in a series (there’s even a note about the sequel at the end), the main plot has enough resolution for the sequel hook/background cliffhanger at the end not to feel frustrating or unsatisfying.

All in all, this novel was a lot of fun to read 🙂 If you want a more innovative and imaginative version of the the cyberpunk genre that moves at twice the usual pace, includes lots of atmosphere, some well-placed horror elements and an interesting premise, then this novel is well worth reading 🙂

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a five.