Review: Escapology by Ren Warom

Escapology

Genre: Science fiction, cyberpunk
Publisher: Titan Books
Release date: June 14th 2016
This edition: ARC

Synopsis:

Shock Pao is not just any Haunt – he’s the best. There isn’t a system that he can’t crack into, nothing he can’t steal for the right price. Outside the virtual world of the Slip, though, he’s a Fail – no degree, no job, no affiliations to protect him from angry ex-customers. Of which he has quite a few. So when his ex brings Shock a job, he accepts, little realizing that it will turn out to be his most impossible, illegal and insane assignment yet.

Amiga works for Twist Calhoun, one of the toughest crime lords in the Gung, as a Cleaner – assassin. When Shock’s war comes to her, she doesn’t have a choice: it’s her job to bring him to Twist, dead or alive – or it’ll be her head in a bag in Twist’s vault.

So first, a bit of disclosure: I’ve never, to the best of my recollection, read a cyberpunk novel before. I understood the basic gist of that subgenre, though, and so I took on Escapology out of curiosity for that, as well as liking the sound of the story itself. Am I still curious for more?

Possibly. I’ll admit, I’m not entirely sure if cyberpunk is my cup of tea. I use computers to write and to muck about on the Internet; my capacity for understanding anything more demanding is woefully small, and given how much relatively hard information there is on the technological elements of this story (there’s a lot of virtual reality and hacking shenanigans), I confess I struggled a little to keep up. Though of course I think that’s a shortcoming of mine, and not necessarily the book’s.

That said, if the question is “will I keep reading Ren Warom’s stories?” then the answer is definitely yes. I might be on the fence about cyberpunk, but regardless of what I think of the subgenre this book seems to fall into, the book itself is the thing, and I found the thing really fascinating – and, yes, exciting! VR jargon aside, the bigger-picture story here was, for me, rooted in society – as a gestalt, almost tangible entity, in the sense that the setting here is (mostly) Earth’s only remaining land-bound city after an apocalyptic seismic event that basically tore every continent apart. There are other cities, probably much more hospitable, in orbit above the Earth – but we’re not interested in those. The Earth-bound survivors are the dregs, and the fittest among them are either psychotic gangsters with a choke-hold on those less fortunate, or genius-level hackers smart enough to be signal-dark on general principle.

And the signal, despite the crushing geographical restrictions, is vast. Reality might be confining the people of the Gung to a spit of land where they literally live one atop another, but virtual reality is more like the ocean – temptingly vast, and full of the kind of avatars that reflect the sorts of creatures that survive there. VR and communication technology would appear to have also survived the end of the world as we know it, which strikes me as a deliciously ironic ray of hope: yes, the world ended, but we can still get online! These concerns are likely all too real nowadays when we stop to think about them…

Shock Pao is one of the aforementioned genius-level hackers – a Haunt, so named for that tendency to stay off the radar of the big bad fish with the sharper teeth. Guess how well that plan goes for him here. Shock took a while to get me warmed up to him, and the story’s momentum had kind of the same issue. I’m certainly not saying the book’s setting and premise are dull – they’re not. The worldbuilding, which includes the existence of “land ships” where people who aren’t inclined to stay in one place choose to live (and let’s face it, the prospect of living in the Gung is only desirable if you live on top of it), is pretty astounding. It’s clear that the author put a lot of thought and effort into making it all work, and despite my reservations about the genre, I was impressed by this. I’ll be honest, the idea of post-apocalyptic pirates will never not be delightful to me. My issues with all of this aren’t so much with the worldbuilding, but with the way the story unfolds alongside it. The first half of the book is kind of scattershot, plot-wise. All the elements of it are there, but they don’t feel very cohesive until the book’s second half gets going. That turnaround saves it from losing me as a reader, and does it remarkably well, but in retrospect it does make that early meandering through story more conspicuous.

But let’s focus on the positives, because as I said, the story rescues itself marvellously, and in plenty of time to give us a finale that’s both tighter than, and yet every bit as deliriously, over-the-top spectacular as the premise laid out in the first half. And while I will give that spectacle its due, for me the real draw was the shift in how the story’s key characters come together, bringing everything back to that theme of society that I mentioned. From the mass entity in which Shock and Amiga, the Cleaner (assassin) eventually sent after him, are little more than floundering flotsam, the story homes in on how they find something new – and better – to hold onto. Shock is, for all of his talents, a drug addict; spending so much time in the Slip (the virtual reality world where he isn’t an utter failure at life) makes coming out of it again hard to bear, both physically and mentally. As for Amiga, she’s a skilled assassin working for one of the aforementioned psychotic gangsters, and rapidly losing herself to the bloody demands of that line of work. It’s leading her to push away everyone around her – until she crosses paths with Shock. To say much more would give away some important plot points, so all I’ll say is that this is an Unlikely Pairing that results in some equally unexpected warming of the heart – for the reader, and for Amiga and Shock. That turnaround for those characters, and what it leads them into, is what really hooked me on this story and kept me reading to the end, and that’s enough to make it a successful first novel in my opinion.

The story here may be messy before it really finds its feet, but one thing Ren Warom can’t be faulted for here is failing to tell a damned good story regardless. There are some real pearls in that ocean, if you’ll forgive the cheesy extension of the nautical metaphor, and while I can’t deny that some polish was needed, the story can always get away with coming second to the characters, and upon reflection I suspect that some of the loose-threads feel here is perhaps in keeping with the way Shock’s and Amiga’s lives are going until they start to pick up one another’s threads, as it were. It’s never unclear that these are two people whose whole lives are a mess and that they’ve been trying to hold everything together on their own, never really able to connect well enough with the people in their lives to do better at it – and that, right there, is what hit me in the gut hard enough that I ended up appreciating the story all the more. I know a thing or two about that, though admittedly without the extreme circumstances, and so I was able to take my investment in this story from mere fascination to genuine sympathy. It’s only when Shock and Amiga actually meet, and thus impact one another’s lives, that it starts to look as though there might be hope for either of them.

And maybe that was the point. We can have all the technological or physical skills in the world, and be amazing at what we do, but it never really means much if there’s no one we can count on to help us do better – to be better than what we are. This is a heartfelt underlying message that I wasn’t expecting to find in this mad sprawl of a story, but it’s made ten times better for having it. So I applaud the writer, and as I said, I am definitely on board for whatever she might do next. May it be bigger and even better.

I’ll kind of miss the pixellated octopus, though. Shark, too.

 

 

 

 

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