Equations of Life by Simon Morden – a Review

Samuil Petrovitch, a Russian scientist living in what remains of London, makes a life changing decision one morning. Faced with a choice to act or not, he acts. In that one moment a chain of events is set in motion which will leave scars etched into the landscape. Sam loses the life he had. He loses the anonymity he had carefully cultivated, and worst of all, he loses his heart.

Samuil Petrovitch saves the girl. This isn’t the end of the story, you understand, but only the beginning.

She’s the daughter of an alleged crime lord, and now the competition want words about interrupting their kidnapping attempt. Between the Ukranians and the Japanese, there’s little love lost. An uncooperative policeman with a fair idea of where the bodies are buried would like a word too.

In the meantime, quantum computing and the next incarnation of virtual reality are being established in somebody’s basement. That’s not going to be a recipe for unqualified success.

And in the heart of post-apocalypse North America, pursuing an aggressive Reconstruction agenda, anything the CIA can label “Weapon” but can’t buy or steal is quickly going to be designated “Threat.”

Simon Morden, the author of four Metrozone novels and numerous other short works, is a genuine rocket scientist. He has bits of paper to prove it, and a literary style which is as blunt and visceral as the world he has created. Set in a London only recognisable to the reader by the enduring place names, some years after fanatics detonated nuclear weapons across Europe to hasten Armageddon, the world is a vile and corrupted place in which small pockets such as the London Metrozone represent survival of the lucky and the resilient. His mixture of familiar and new – the technology is realistically advanced, human nature less so – allows the reader to sink wholeheartedly into the dystopic vision and trace Sam’s erratic footsteps from being deliberately below the radar to a global news story.

I saw Morden give a short talk at a Greenbelt Festival in the relatively recent past. He has a good grip on the fine balance needed between writing good narrative fiction and keeping the science real enough to convince the reader. Inventions in the book and its (so far three) sequels have started to make their way into the real world whether by accident or design. Info shades, for example sound a lot like the slimmer and better qualified granddaughter of Google Glass. An info-rich environment and one where network access is both commonplace and strictly monitored creates a new context for concepts such as “underground” and “covert”, to the extent that the only way to ensure complete secrecy seems to be pencil and paper.

Another aspect of this series which appealed to me was Morden’s unflinching inclusion of religious belief in the narrative. One of the central characters is Roman Catholic. The language of an emerging force in the first novel (and a recurring theme in the second and third) includes the term “Jihad” in a fairly accurate context. The “Reconstructionist” United States has a deep seated Christianity-based religious bias which is fundamentally undermined by compromises made at the highest levels and decisions to eliminate any potential threats. If that sounds familiar, it should. By including this aspect of real life, Morden adds further realistic depth to his tales.

In order to fully appreciate the Metrozone novels, and Equations of Life in particular, some knowledge of Russian or access to a Russian-English phonetic dictionary is probably going to be useful. Samuil Petrovitch is a brilliant scientist, but he’s also a potty-mouthed street kid and his choice of Slavic invective lends a strong flavour and flow to the conversations he has in English. It’s as though you can taste his accent in the liberal sprinkling of swear words and running Imperial Russian jokes.

After all, where he comes from, the story tells you.

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