Cowboy Angels, by Paul McAuley
Posted February 8, 2011on:
Cowboy Angels, by Paul McAuley
Published: PYR, Jan 2011
Where I got it: received a review copy from the publisher
Why I read it: alluring blurb, totally awesome cover art.
Something like Sliders meets James Bond meets Stargate meets Jason Bourne, Cowboy Angels is one of the fastest paced stories I’ve read in a long time. Playing fast and loose with quantum mechanics, McAuley offers us an alternate Earth whose citizens call their world The Real, as this is the original Earth where the first Turing Gate allowed travel to parallel earths. It’s the early 1980’s, and agents from the Real have been living undercover and slowly making contact with other earth governments for decades.
The high concept is that all decisions have the potential to split off another parallel Earth, or sheaf, and that all possible choices do exist. The Turing Gates open to random sheaves, in which small historical changes (Alan Turing emigrating to America, for instance) cause massive future changes. There is some really fun math happening here, especially since I was reading Cowboy Angels while I was reading Flatterland.
Retired Company Agent Adam Stone has been living quietly in a wild sheaf for a few years, trying to find the right moment to confess his feelings to the widow of his best friend. Interrupting his idyllic life, he is called back to work, ostensibly to bring his old partner, Tom Waverly, whose gone rogue, back to the fold. It’s believed that Tom has gone crazy, stolen government secrets, and started killing the doppels (the doppleganger “you” in another sheaf) of government mathematician Eileen Barrie. Tom needs to be brought in alive before he destroys everything.
And thus starts a wild ride from the Real to post-nuclear-war Earths, to cold-war Earths, to places and times that will feel hauntingly familiar yet foreign. Teamed up with Tom’s daughter Linda (whose also a Company employee) Adam does eventually find his old friend. Dying of radiation poisoning, Tom leads the two agents on a wild goose chase following clues that only his old partner and his daughter could possibly figure out. Tom has a dangerous secret, and he’ll only give it up to people he trusts.
When the twist finally hits like a ton of bricks that I’d have seen coming if I’d only bothered to look up, my first thought was “well, it’s about damn time”. That’s a little pun for folks who have read the book.
Complete with nifty James Bond-esque vehicles and gadgets and Jason Bourne style fight scenes, Cowboy Angels would make a great action movie. Action, weapons and car chases make for an excellent James Bond flick, but to make ana compelling novel I need more. The skinny explanation for the functioning of the Turing Gates had my imagination screaming for more, I wish the Eileen Barrie plot line had been explored further, and I really could have used more background about the oft mentioned Church Committee Hearings. McAuley was going for a run of the mill cold-war spy novel with a timely twist, but I really needed more to make this a stand out novel for me. He presented some wonderful ideas, but zipped through them too fast. This novel could have used an injection of Neal Stephenson-itis (aka complexity and slick infodumps).
At first I wondered if this was an anti-war novel, as more than once characters question if their “help” in alternate sheaves has done more harm than good. Having finished the novel though, I conclude that Cowboy Angels is an anti-imperialism story, a timely warning against pushing your way of life on others.
If you enjoy cold war-esque spy stories, alternate histories and action packed super-fast paced books, give Cowboy Angels a try. Ultimately it was just okay for me, but it’s a quick read, and worth it, just for the fun math and the idea that any decision can split off a whole different world.