After finishing the previous book I reviewed, I wasn’t sure what to read next. Eventually, I ended up scouring the dustier parts of my bookshelves in search of hidden gems and, after a while, a crumpled copy of Adrian Matthews’ 1999 sci-fi thriller novel “Vienna Blood” caught my eye.
Although I can’t remember when or where I first found this book (at a guess, it was probably a second-hand bookshop at some point during the mid-late 2000s), I can easily guess why it interested me. After all, like with Jack O’Connell’s “Word Made Flesh“, this was a novel with a prominent critic quote on the cover that referenced the movie “Blade Runner”. What can I say? This will usually make me buy a book, even if I haven’t heard of it before.
So, let’s take a look at “Vienna Blood”. Needless to say, this review may contain some mild SPOILERS.
This is the 2000 Vintage (UK) paperback edition of “Vienna Blood” that I read.
Set in Vienna in late 2026, the novel begins with a local journalist called Sharkey learning that a man called Leo Detmers has died in a mysterious hit-and-run accident. Sharkey vividly remembers meeting Leo for the first time during a trip to a data protection conference in Germany several weeks earlier and going out drinking with him. But, although Sharkey only met Leo once, he gets a message from Leo’s pregnant wife, Petra, asking to talk to him.
Petra tells Sharkey that Leo considered him to be his only friend and that he somehow knew that he was going to die several months before it happened – to the point of taking out a large life insurance policy and telling her to contact Sharkey if anything happened to him. Although Sharkey is initially sceptical about this, he reluctantly decides to investigate further…
One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, although it was much slower-paced and more “literary” than I’d expected, it is a surprisingly compelling sci-fi thriller that is also eerily prescient in some regards too. Yes, the comparison to “Blade Runner” on the cover isn’t one that I’d make myself (in terms of setting and atmosphere, it’s probably slightly closer to a 1990s William Gibson novel), but – if you enjoy eerily plausible near-future sci-fi with a hint of cyberpunk and biopunk, then you’ll enjoy this one.
Still, I should probably start by talking about this novel’s sci-fi elements. For the most part, this novel focuses on genetic engineering and all of the various ethical issues surrounding it – all of this stuff is handled in a rather thoughtful and “scientific” way, whilst also being the source for lots of drama and thought-provoking moments.
It is a novel about how technology is often far ahead of the regulations surrounding it and about all of the various moral issues surrounding eugenics. This is also used to critique right-wing politics, with the novel pointing out the practical importance of genetic diversity too.
The segments about genetics also pose questions about what makes us who we are, “nature vs nurture”, whether companies should have the right to patent biological discoveries etc… All of these topics are handled in a really nuanced and “realistic” way, which makes a point without ever really patronising or preaching at the reader.
However, the most interesting sci-fi element of this novel is probably the “future” of 2026 itself. Although some elements of it are wonderfully ’90s, it is genuinely surprising just how much stuff this novel actually gets right about the 2010s-20s. Seriously, it’s almost on the level of something like William Gibson’s “Idoru” in this regard.
Whether it is the use of technology like augmented reality, smartphone-like devices (called “bip-bips”), e-books, virtual personal assistants and electric cars, or political developments such as more places legalising cannabis or the disturbing rise of xenophobic hard-right populist politics in Europe, this novel almost feels like it was written with the assistance of a time machine.
On a side note, since I prepare these reviews quite far in advance (though not as far in advance as I used to), I started reading this novel when I was still a citizen of the European Union – and by the time I finished it – I was no longer one. This is a novel from 1999, and yet it felt more ominously relevant than ever in the run-up to Brexit. If I remember rightly, one eerie moment in this novel was a mention of something like a “European Federation” (?) with only twenty-seven member states. Yes, this novel gets some stuff wrong about the future – but it gets a shocking amount of stuff right!
Interestingly, although this isn’t really a “cyberpunk” novel, it takes quite a bit of influence from the genre – with a few vaguely cyberpunk-style locations (such as the police station), a focus on powerful tech companies and several scenes involving computer hacking. But, in an interesting twist, these scenes aren’t the kind of stylised “Neuromancer”-type thing you might expect. In fact, the topic is mostly presented in a decidedly understated and unglamourous way that is clearly based on research into real-world 1990s computer hacking (albeit with a few mildly “futuristic” elements).
This novel is also something of a thriller too. Although you shouldn’t expect a fast-paced story, this novel contains a really good mixture of “investigative reporter”-style detective elements and a complex, twist-filled plot that become more and more gripping as the story progresses. This is also paired with a few suspenseful moments and a couple of dramatic “set pieces” too, in order to keep the reader on their toes. Again, this is a rather slow-paced thriller, but it is still a fairly compelling one.
In terms of the characters, this novel is interesting. As you’d expect from a first-person perspective novel, the narrator – Sharkey – gets the bulk of the story’s characterisation. He’s a typical hard-boiled reporter character who, in true ’90s fashion, is a cynical twenty/thirtysomething. Interestingly, although he’s supposed to be Austrian – he often comes across as very British in the kind of way that wouldn’t be entirely out of place in an old Alex Garland novel, a film like “Shooting Fish” etc.. Even his nickname sounds British. Plus, for a “millennial” character, his tastes in music and knowledge of philosophy/literature feel decidedly older. Still, he’s a rather interesting protagonist nonetheless.
Although the other characters don’t really get as much characterisation as Sharkey and can occasionally seem a little bit on the stylised side of things (Petra and Leo spring to mind here), they still seem like distinctive, quirky and unique characters who all have personalities, motivations and backstories that help to add a lot of atmosphere and personality to the novel.
The writing in this novel isn’t what I’d expected though. Unlike the more “matter of fact” narration you’d expect in a thriller novel, the first-person narration here is very much on the “literary” side of things. Yes, it has some informal moments and a bit of a hardboiled tone to it (with a few hints of 1990s-style edginess and “Cool Britannia”) – but this is very much a high-brow literary novel that is aimed at experienced readers.
In other words, expect a very extensive vocabulary, detailed descriptions, classical music/philosophy references, scientific/technical jargon and some untranslated German words (although these can usually be understood from the context). On the plus side, all of this stuff adds a lot of atmosphere, seriousness and individuality to the novel, whilst also giving the reader a bit of an enjoyable challenge too. However, on the downside, the writing style slows the story down quite a bit too and can occasionally come across as “showing off” and/or being mildly unrealistic (seriously, Sharkey seems a lot older than his stated age).
This, of course, brings me on to length and pacing. Although this novel is a reasonably short 312 pages in length, don’t expect it to be a quick read (it took me 4-5 days to read. Thank goodness for my article buffer). Although the novel’s plot is a rather compelling one and the story also includes lots of atmosphere and intriguing background details, the “literary” writing style can really slow things down to an absolute crawl at times. Yes, the story starts to flow a bit better and more quickly when you get used to the writing style – but this is still a slower-paced story than you might expect.
As for how well this twenty-one year old novel has aged, it is still difficult to explain how uncanny reading this novel can feel. It is very clearly from mid-late 1990s Britain (eg: characters, atmosphere/attitude, writing style, some of the tech, some brief “politically incorrect” moments etc..), and yet it often feels like a modern novel about the modern world too. Again, I have to wonder if a time machine was used when writing this novel.
All in all, this is an eerily prescient and atmospheric “realistic” near-future sci-fi thriller with a rather compelling plot and some vaguely cyberpunk elements. Yes, it is a very slow-paced novel that is written in the kind of “literary” style that doesn’t always fit in well with the characters or the type of story that is being told – but, if you want a good example of “realistic” sci-fi and/or are a fan of writers like William Gibson, then you’ll probably enjoy it.
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a four.