John Trevillian – The A-Men
There is an argument to be made that it is a difficult time to be writing action-packed fiction with a pulpish bent: more modern forms of entertainment media continue to grow in popularity, and whilst videogame narratives struggle to claw their way out of the ghetto of barely-coherent melodrama and machismo it seems probable that it will be the game, not the film or the novel, that will retrospectively define the youth of this generation.
There is also an argument to be made that this trend need not be relevant: there will always be space for novels that build themselves around action and adventure, and there will always be readers. The young are not the only demographic worth pursuing, and nor are they the only demographic who, to put it hyperbolically, enjoy having their adrenaline raced.
John Trevillian’s first novel, and the first of a trilogy, is what I would consider pulp fiction for the modern SF reader. It’s full of ideas, many of them – as is inevitably the case in a culture saturated with media production – familiar. It picks and chooses from sub-genres; the decadent megalopolises and megacorps of cyberpunk, the iconic villains and heroes of the more light-hearted end of post-apocalyptic fiction (an oxymoron, yes, but a highly entertaining sub-genre), the gun-porn and gung-ho attitude of MilSF, plus a smattering of satire.
The novel focuses around five characters, between whose viewpoints it regularly switches, chapter by chapter. Some such chapters are very short, seemingly present mostly so that we don’t forget about a character and to help them along with their baby steps toward plot relevance. The character who receives far and away the most attention is Jack, aka. The Nowhereman (the core cast all possess catchy monikers that are included on the inside sleeve, although it’s not until well past the halfway point that most of these nicknames are adopted – but humour this, it is the first part of a trilogy after all). He’s that most common of tropes, an amnesiac with a mysterious history just at the edge of his understanding. What is a bit unusual is that he apparently arranged this himself, about three hours before he and a platoon of megacorp soldiers are dropped into a city on the cusp of anarchy.
The other four characters all tie in to the city and Jack in various ways. Esther, aka. Sister Midnight, is Jack’s field commander, and one of the last remaining Christians in a secular future. Benji and uplifted dog Dingo/Elliot, aka. 23rdxentury Boy and Phantom the Wonder Dog (these names are taken from a comic and TV series they like, as Benji is a very young boy, and yes, the dog has three names), escape from a corporate genetic research facility and eventually fall in with Jack’s crowd. Susie, aka. Pure, is a street-level drug addict, socialite and sometime prostitute who is also pulled into Jack’s orbit (although for about two thirds of the novel she doesn’t do much more than drift from minor setpiece to setpiece). Finally, there is Nathaniel Glass, aka. D’Alessandro, whose latter identity is a secret but apparently not to the reader, as it’s given away in every chapter heading. He’s a super-rich scientist working on experimental artificial intelligence – unofficially and quite illegally, which is how he misses the evacuation of the city.
Over the course of the novel we see Jack and Esther fall to Earth, engage in a rapidly overwhelmed “peacekeeping” mission, and then form a gang out of the few abandoned survivors. The other core characters all join this gang or, in Glass’s case, are somehow tied in to Jack’s mysterious past – which he is every bit as eager to uncover as he is to assert the authority and survival of his gang. It’s the survival of the eponymous A-Men, and Jack’s unhinged efforts to alternately hold them together and abandon them, that concerns the latter half of the novel (there is another plot element but it only becomes apparent towards the end, and I shan’t give it away). If you’d guess that this means the novel takes a long time to get going, you’d be right: a lot of the early chapters do an acceptable job with worldbuilding, introducing us to characters and picturing the city’s collapse as its rulers and accoutrements of government and law are abruptly removed, but this is only moderately engaging reading.
I’ve grappled for a while about why this might be, and my conclusion is that the story lacks an emotional core. The self-destruction of a city is a terrible thing, but when its residents are presented as an anonymous mass of violent looters and victims it is difficult to generate empathy. Similarly, the five core characters are difficult to care about. Take Jack, who is the best example. The role he occupies within the novel tells us that he is charismatic – he draws these disparate characters to him – and a natural leader – he holds them together and, mostly, ensures their survival and success. The problem is that he is not charismatic – he is a rampant narcissist with no sense of loyalty who repeatedly abandons his cherished gang in order to pursue his own ends. His solipsism is almost infantile, at times, as he reacts only to what is immediately in front of him and cares little about anything else, bigger picture be damned. Now, for me he’s an easy character to despise, but that doesn’t make him a bad character – what produces this effect is that he does not fit into the role the novel has for him. He is not a convincing leader, he is not a convincing hero, and he’s about as charismatic as a vaginal fart.
Esther is more sympathetic, a genuinely conflicted character who is a perpetual outsider. She is tugged along by the currents around her, occasionally taking a stand but eventually she is worn down. Simultaneously directed and directionless, she’s an interesting individual, but she is also cold and unaffectionate, and her one moment of romance with Jack (occurring after hundreds of pages of setup between the two) occurs a couple of pages before he abandons her for the hot new blonde on the scene. “Couple of pages” is not an exaggeration, by the way.
Dr. Glass is a conniving wanker who spends much of the novel locked in a lab, and Pure is another emotionally retarded idiot (although she is also a possessive and terrified addict / ex-addict so it’s hard to hate her for it), but by contrast Benji and Dingo are wonderful characters. They’re equal parts pragmatic and obsessed with the fantasy of their comic heroes, every bit the streetwise yet naive streetrat. Their chapters are also among the most memorable; all five viewpoints are presented differently, although Trevillian’s prose style creeps wide and deep into the narration for all of his characters. Benji’s chapters, however, are presented in a semi-pidgin English. His vocabulary is way too large for a kid who’s no more than ten, but hey, he’s the 23rdxenturyboy, and he did sort-of work in a genetic research facility.
But if one of the core rules of action-adventure is to encourage the reader to root for the protagonist, it’s obvious to me that The A-Men doesn’t accomplish this. I didn’t care for Jack, and as a result I didn’t care either for his personal quest for knowledge or the survival of his gang (individuals therein, yes, but not the gang). This is a bit of a problem as it constitutes the bulk of the tale.
The novel also, alas, meanders. I’ve already noted that about half of the novel is spent getting Jack and Esther into the city and cut off from their employers, and similarly a half to two-thirds is spent getting the other characters to the same place as him (only Dr. Glass plays any significant role in the plot before encountering Jack). Jack’s own jaunts off the beaten track – notably once to a villa in the countryside to rest for a week and locate a plot coupon – are a tiresome distraction. It’s not until near the very end of the book that any sort of significant conflict is set up, and it’s given little room to breathe. There are a few asides that serve some narrative purpose; Esther briefly joins the “weirdie-beardies”, an amalgamation of every cult and religion out there led by a prophet named Dai-80. This event is supposed to represent a moment of internal conflict for Esther, where she abandons her friends and nascent gang and submerges herself in the trappings of religion generica. Unfortunately this serious scene is somewhat undermined by the crude satiric representations of Dai-80 and his followers, who to a man and woman are a few cutlery drawers short of a cutlery drawer.
In many ways, it seems that The A-Men is unsure what it wants to be. Its satiric moments are among the weakest, and if it’s intended satirically overall – which I doubt – it’s not clear what its targets are. It’s not a remotely serious attempt to look at what might happen to a city if law, order and government were removed without warning or planning – there is only passing acknowledgement of the necessity of food and water, and despite the production and import of both ceasing entirely no one starves or dies of thirst. Perhaps it wants to be a pulpish adventure yarn with brains. It has the adventure, but its characters are often inadequate or misplaced – or more generously, just too damaged to play hero. It has ideas, but too much of its worldbuilding lacks depth and authenticity for it to feel like a real attempt to explore ideas. This is not to mention the action-thriller archetypal violence, in which Jack’s gang – no more than a dozen in number – can fend off other gangs thousands strong. At one point a ten year-old boy kills about a dozen grizzled bike-riding gang members. How? Well, he’s a goodie, and apparently that’s all you need in a world that’s half Mad Max and half Warhammer 40,000.
The A-Men has some respectable strengths. Trevillian’s writing is impressive in its assured confidence. His narrative voice is often striking, and occasionally his imagery is startlingly vivid. At times a sly referential wit emerges: in one example, an experiment into whale/AI sentience punnily nicknamed the “X-Isle” because of its clandestine nature is preceded by musings on its uncanniness, producing “the uncanny X-Isle”, a gag which also recalls the eponymous gang “the A-Men”, which in turn is a pun on both modes of worship and playing god. Trevillian’s presentation of deeply broken characters is often very convincing, with Pure every bit the irrational and erratic addict and Esther’s conflicted nature mostly working very well.
But, overall, the novel’s flaws are too many. It is a case of death by a thousand cuts, because despite the inherent problems I’ve already described they are not in themselves enough to derail what might otherwise be a pedestrian-with-inspired-moments pulp SF tale. But there are many other little embarrassments. A pair called Cleatus & Bubba, who are every bit the backwater stereotype… fish out of water in the middle of this city and story. The repeated and awkward references to Esther’s skin tone: “Her chocolate knuckles straining to cream around the hot handle of her weapon.” The same treatment of Baseeq, the only other black character. Black black black black black. No one is described as “white” or exoticised on that basis. The two consecutive chapters which portray the same action performed by Jack, then Esther (not a case of unreliable narrator, just an instance of confused author). The laughably non-threatening rival gangs; the Grim Reapers single-handedly define the term “mooks“. The inexplicable movement of characters (one soldier appears alongside his platoon then soon after appears aboard a dropship, and there is no way he could have gotten there). Not to mention the fact that I can’t see, and the novel never tries to explain, how a corporate entity abandoning an entire city of workers and consumers makes any kind of economic sense whatsoever.
I wanted to like The A-Men. There is a good novel beneath these many cuts, and a potentially very good author, but on the basis of what I’ve read here I’d say both need more work. If it seems like I am harsh on the novel, it is only because I felt it contained so much promise.