Fiction Review: Ack-Ack Macaque

BY GARETH L POWELL
Publisher: Solaris
Review by Belle Cooper

ackackTo hear author Gareth L Powell tell it, it all started started quite simply: with a name. It was his job only to find the character and the story that name belonged to. He’s since managed to do so twice, first with a short story appearing in the UK fiction magazine “Interzone”, and later with a full-length novel. That name, Ack-Ack Macaque, was so evocative that he used it to title both works. It certainly makes for a hell of a draw: a monkey in an eye-patch and a bomber jacket, with a nasty demeanor and a heart of gold, who spends much of his time either dogfighting over Europe or taking out Nazi ninjas–no, really–with his twin Colts, chomping on a cigar the whole way.

Everybody loves the monkey.

Ack-Ack Macaque isn’t so much steampunk as cyberpunk with steam and diesel detailing. While airships and their delightful governmental autonomy do play a central role in the novel, they’re powered by nuclear reactors rather than steam engines. The year is 2054, and the UK is about to celebrate its centennial with the launch of a Mars probe. That’s the United Kingdom of Great Britain, France, Ireland, and Norway, by the way, a union forged in 1954 when France voluntarily gave itself over to British rule in the wake of World War II. Since then, it seems, the sun never set on the British Empire; one of the central threats of the climax is the possibility of nuclear war with China over Britain’s refusal to give up control of Hong Kong.

Our main characters are Victoria Valois, a reporter-turned-cyborg out to solve the mystery of her husband’s murder; Merovech, the reluctant teenage crown prince of the UK; and the titular Ack-Ack Macaque, star of the world’s most popular video game, gone AWOL and rogue into the real world. In classic cyberpunk fashion, the novel takes on questions about identity and the nature of reality in a world of advanced technology that includes artificial intelligence and computerized neural enhancements. All three characters find themselves facing these questions throughout the novel as their ideas about the world and their place in it are turned on their heads. Victoria, at least, has some small advantage, having two years of experience hacking her own brain under her belt.

My only real issue with the book is that I wanted it to take everything just a little bit further. The book touches on a lot of things without ever really exploring them: the problematic nature of colonialism and globalization feed into the central conflict, but other than the Hong Kong thing, is never really evaluated. The minor characters are rather one dimensional: K8, the Scottish hacker, does little more than facilitate Ack-Ack’s travel back and forth between the real world and the game and provide a little bit of necessary exposition, while Julie, Merovech’s French activist girlfriend, spends most of the book as a useful plot device (though, minor spoilers, she also gets one of my favorite moments in the book, when she tells Merovech that she doesn’t need rescuing, especially poignant considering that he’s quite literally her prince). Our two antagonists aren’t terribly complex, either, swimming in pretty much pure villainy and megalomania, and for one of them, some fairly gratuitous misogyny, seemingly for no other purpose than to let the reader know just how bad he really is. Even the imagined future of technology could be taken a few steps further. While the creation of the “gelware” neural implants is fascinating, as is the concept of the “soulcatcher”, a device created to record brainwaves, providing for a limited “life after death”, much of the rest of the technology of 2054 is indistinguishable from that of today. The “syncpads” referred to throughout are clearly iPads and tablets, and characters even refer to watching videos of YouTube. Don’t get me wrong, I think YouTube is a fantastic tool, but I’d like to think that in another 40 years, we’ll have come up with something even better.

The true joy in the book is instead in the stylistic detailing, much of which set off gleeful little reference alerts in my head as I read along. In the age of the internet, it’s hard not to evoke some of its memes, especially in a story as steeped in social and connective technology as this one. There’s monkeys fighting ninjas, a heroine straight out of a comic book with her long army coat, retractable quarter staff, and invisible advisor, and a bad guy who reminded me of nothing less than Something Awful’s Slenderman. These little detailing easter eggs combine with an action-adventure plot that pulls you right along. There’s something cinematic about the way everything plays out; I could easily see this translated onto the big screen.

The ebook edition of Ack-Ack Macaque includes a couple of extras, including the original short story, which while it explores a few of the same ideas as the novel, is actually quite a different beast. It focuses much more on how people relate to one another through both art and sex, using the cyber elements as both a backdrop and a metaphor, and provides a nice contrast with the novel. If you’re looking for an action-adventure story featuring flying machines and fancy technology, Ack-Ack Macaque should be right up your alley.

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