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The Escapist - cybercrime, hackery and sex

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Book Review Sex, violence, religion, intrigue, humour, exploding breasts - Check.

Breakneck story pacing, exotic locations, ancient mythology, a psychopathic computer - Check.

The Escapist appears to tick all the right boxes for an enjoyable mystery-romp through the future. The novel may have some shortcomings, but it's hard to go wrong with those combinations. But first things first.

The Escapist is the first novel by technology luminary James Morris, the editor on top technology rag PC Pro for umpteen years, Morris now spends his time writing for various IT magazines in the UK. His career has included magazine journalism, a stint in New York directing music videos and a PhD in philosophy, influences that are all easy to spot in this debut.

Sorry, do I know you?

The book centres around the escapades of Bentley Dean, an expert computer hacker, who is also a sharp shooter, outrageously lucky, a great conversationalist, well-read and well-travelled, a roaring success with the ladies - oh, and a thief and cold-blooded killer. Any combination of three of these characteristics could quite happily work, and have done so throughout modern cinema and literature, but possessing all of them make Bentley appear a little too Mr Perfect. Have you ever met a computer hacker who's well-spoken and great in bed? No, don't answer that.

Bentley is supported by a cast of crazy associates, including Freida, a nymphomaniac buxom blonde who has a habit of appearing at just the right (or wrong) time; Harry, a successful Thai entrepreneur and galactic criminal; No-nose, a chap with a ticket-name and some unfathomable loyalties; and Michelle, who - well, I couldn't quite work her out. Which, perhaps, is appropriate for an 18-year-old girl.

It's difficult to explain the plot without giving too much of it away, but here's a stab. Bentley starts the book discovering that his lucrative line in illegal hacking must go on ice for a while. He takes up a detective job with a private police force, COSI, which assigns him to find out why prominent scientists are turning up with their brains erased. The investigation leads him to a supercomputer called the Pure Light Abacus, a machine more powerful than any other in the galaxy. There are multiple factions vying for control of the Abacus for their own nefarious ends, and Bentley finds himself being manoeuvred, nay, positively jostled by the interested parties into doing their bidding inadvertently. All Bentley wants to do, it seems, is make a few bob.

Neck duly broken

The Escapist is a tad complicated: The plot is so confusing that at times, I had no idea what some of the characters were doing or why. Key players have their primary alliances, then their secret secondary alliances- sometimes to confusing sub-sects of the first then personal alliances, and some appear to utterly lack rational behaviour or act in bizarre ways, their actions not explained until later chapters. This can make staying on top of the plot difficult, and faction names soon become meaningless as you end up concentrating on the bits you can grasp and and trying to distinguish the main plot from the numerous sub-plots.

Also, the book is laced with sex and violence clearly designed both to shock and amuse. In one chapter, Bentley is anally raped with a courgette, with the scenario described as "Not quite the kind of business transaction [he was] used to". In another, Bentley avoids death by launching the girl he is having sex with ("Riding me, in obviously ecstasy while I lay beneath her making gentle ironic thrusts,") towards the machine gun of his assailant, killing her before leaving his assailant "In spumes" of blood. Often the two coincide insanely: "She put the electric cheese aside and grasped my manhood." It all gets a bit bizarre.

Morris progresses at breakneck speed, which, for those who like their proceedings a little more sedate and carefully considered, can get a bit much. Worlds are travelled between paragraphs, descriptions are thrown past you at Warp 9 and it can be a real effort to keep a track of movements. By the end of the book, the first chapter seems a million light years away.

Transsexuals and Islamic fundamentalists

But despite the confusing characters and a bizarre sado-masochistic plotline, the book is actually rather compelling. The story, if odd, is quite the page-turner, especially as the mystery unravels towards the end of the book. It's easy to share Bentley's sentiments in some, more lacklustre, parts of the novel" "The whole adventure had been a total waste of time". Yet in others, you find yourself laughing out loud at the satire of today's world which runs through the pages, such as this little gem:

"I found a live feed called "Grafted". At the beginning of each week of the series, two people with diametrically opposed opinions on the world were surgically attached to each-other and sent on a variety of dates, with potentially hilarious consequences. This week, a transsexual had been bonded onto an Islamic fundamentalist - the audience voted on whether or not the pair would be offered the opportunity to be separated [and receive] a generous prize cheque.

I can almost here the phones ringing at Fox right now.

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