A novel by Paul McAuley
Review by Paul Weimer
“There are white-tailed deer and woodland caribou and mule deer. Wolves and black bears, and short-faced bears too-those are as big as grizzlies. A few panthers.”
“Pretty good hunting in Manhattan”
“We call the island New Amsterdam here…If you want to hunt something exotic, a mastodon or a ground sloth, you’ll have to go inland.”
Alternate History is one of my favorite sub-genres of science fiction. The idea of worlds where history went differently, sometimes radically differently, has been with me since the days I discovered L. Sprague De Camp and Harry Turtledove.
However, even more appealing to me than straight alternate history is the idea of people, organizations and societies who can travel between these alternate histories. From H. Beam Piper’s Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen, to Frederik Pohl’s The Coming of the Quantum Cats, to the role playing game Infinite Worlds produced by GURPS, to the recent novel Transition by Iain Banks, an even better milieu than a single alternate history is a whole sheaf of them. Harry Turtledove has a YA series which explores this idea, too. And Charles Stross Merchant Princes novels…but you get the idea.
In Cowboy Angels, Paul McAuley explores the idea of an America, calling itself The Real, which has discovered and exploited the technology to reach other histories. This America, since the invention of the Turing Gate in the 1960’s, has been engaged in exploring alternate histories. In addition to forging links with alternate Americas, the titular cowboy angels have been working against the regimes of Americas who have fallen to conquest, Fascism, or Communism. In the mid 80’s, however, the election of President James Earl Carter changes all that, and the more cavalier and black ops elements of the program are wound down. A couple of decades later, one of the original cowboy angels, Adam Stone, living a quiet life in an uninhabited sheaf being colonized by The Real, discovers that some of the old programs supposedly shut down by President Carter are not so dormant after all…
Cowboy Angels is the story of Adam Stone, and his struggles to understand the machinations and actions of one of his former colleagues, Tom Stone. Tom has turned serial killer, and when Adam finally meets his old friend, Adam, in the company of Tom’s daughter, discovers that Tom’s inexplicable actions are designed to stop a treasonous plot.
The novel has a number of clear strengths. McAuley has put a lot of thought into how his Turing Gates work, and the discovery of an item that can modify them fits in with the initial design of his conceptual framework well. I particularly liked his solution to the “All the Myriad Ways” problem of too many alternative universes by limiting the available number of universes that can be explored in a believable and plausible way. McAuley has also put a lot of thought as to what a “Crosstime” organization would do, and how it would operate. The action scenes, and there are many, also work very well. When the novel does go into thriller mode, McAuley brings the goods. There are some nice touches of humor, too, that manage to leaven the book when it threatens to become too serious. And the idea of CIA agents working in a number of alternate histories (including a world that is pretty clearly our own) is an extremely potent one.
Weaker, however, is the execution of some elements of Cowboy Angels. McAuley, whose work I have enjoyed for years, going all the way back to the Confluence trilogy, has made a couple of missteps here, in my opinion. I found it difficult to connect with the characters. I continued to read and finish the book based on the strengths of the ideas given, rather than the protagonists and antagonists. Without the hook of strong characters, though, it sometimes made the reading a bit laborious, especially when the novel felt more like a spy novel than a SF novel exploring the implications of an interesting technology, or the alternate histories themselves. Stone is given a personal reason to want to continue the mission given to him, but I don’t think McAuley ever really sells the emotional connection well enough for me to accept it. In addition, as mentioned above, for long stretches of the book, the novel feels much more like a spy vs. spy novel than a SF book.
If anything, I think McAuley understates and under-develops the implications of the Turing Gates on society. We get a few hints here and there, especially toward the end, but I think much more could have and should have been done in this regard. How and what the rest of the Real world thinks about Turing Gates is not explored at all, a surprise given that the author is not American. Heck, the political and geopolitical situation that allows America in this history its implied monopoly on the technology is never shown.
All in all, while Cowboy Angels was an acceptable read, it sadly did not shine brightly in the firmament of alternate history novels, in my opinion.