Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2005/06/06/the_escapist_book_review/

The Escapist - cybercrime, hackery and sex

Complex technothriller

By Wil Harris

Posted in Media, 6th June 2005 14:02 GMT

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.

Sartorial satire

It is through this black humour and sociological satire that the book really shines. Morris has the power to take modern concepts and show their ridiculousness by taking them to futuristic extremes. When people in the world stop caring about each other, one message goes, characters are able to parade hostages at gunpoint through buildings without anyone batting an eyelid. The parallel with today's world is powerful, at times.

One of the selling points of the book must be that Morris is a real-life technology expert writing about futuristic technology. There are some moments of utter geekdom, such as when a Microsoft-powered robotic waiter takes three goes to get an order right, or when a server cluster, sitting idly, spends its time running a programme to search for alien life. There are some neat ideas for viable future technology, such as presentation slides triggered by pre-programmed voice cues. Complementing the black humour, there are some utterly outrageous gizmos that are little more than plot devices, but perhaps none the worse-off for it.

Morris has obviously spent a lot of time relating his philosophy PhD to his love of technology, because my favourite aspect of the book is the subtextual discussion of the distinction between humans and computers. Rather than titles, each chapter is preceded with a thought about the philosophy of life, thoughts which are often insightful and provoking, providing the reader with a different context in which to think about everyday occurrences. Here's a couple to give you an idea:

"One of the differences between a living organism and a machine is that living beings are unpredictable. If we ever come to understand the organic as well as we understand machines, perhaps we'd discover that organisms were just complicated mechanisms all along. Or maybe we'd realise that machines behaving unpredictably could be showing signs of life."

"Now that so much of human activity is dictated by databases, you can change the course of history by altering a few entries in a file or two. The whole of human life rests upon trusting information from accredited sources., and a small amount of falsified data can trigger any action you want."

Gives a new context to the 15-minute claim, doesn't it?

Yes, but is it any good?

Perhaps it is this abundance of competing, complimentary and contradictory themes running through the book that gives the book its slightly schizophrenic charm. Even if the balance is sometimes off, attempting to juggle humour with mystery with erotica with social satire with religious extremism and the philosophy of existence is not an easy task, and Morris manages to communicate a lot of feeling, information and commentary in the book's 165 pages. In fact, you may find the need, as I did, to go back over some paragraphs in the book two or three times, just to make sure you've assimilated all the information therein. Rest assured that, as far as I can tell, this is perfectly normal.

Is The Escapist for you? It's difficult not to like a book that packs in all of your favourite features. If you don't like sex, or violence, or technology, or black humour, you won't really enjoy the book (and what are you doing reading el Reg?). If you do, and you can look past the book's few shortcomings, you'll spend several enjoyable evenings following the improbable adventures of Bentley and his crazed harem of co-stars, and you'll have some interesting food for thought by the time you reach the end, too.

Related link

Buy The Escapist

ISBN: 1-905290-05-5 £7.99

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