If you've lain awake nights, bemoaning the lack of original ideas in science fiction, thinking to yourself, "If only someone would come up with a story involving alternate history, video games, mad scientists, assassins, royal conspiracies, airships, and top it all off with a smack-talking, cigar-chomping simian who's a fighter pilot," then sing hallelujah, for your prayers have been answered. While I may not have found Gareth Powell's previous novel, the New Space Opera effort The Recollection, terribly persuasive, the gloriously outlandish exercise in balls-out, high-octane entertainment that is Ack-Ack Macaque offers as much utterly irresponsible fun as you could hope to have with a monkey without having to explain yourself to the police. It is certainly not going to be everyone's banana daiquiri, but there's undeniably nothing else like it in the genre right now.
What is most pleasing about this book is that what could have been a self-conscious, one-joke tossoff is in fact a smart and impressively layered actioner. Powell presents popular culture, particularly video games and tabloid celebrity worship (especially the UK version of the latter, where, unlike in the States, at least the objects of such public adulation really are royalty), as the unlikely medium through which social change and revolution emerge. And by indulging in the most iconic tropes of pop culture entertainment — structurally, the narrative bears more than a passing resemblance to some classic Bond films — Powell pays them loving homage. The whole thing is just a blast. The smile the title puts on your face will stay there throughout.
In 2059, in an alternate world in which France and England united a century earlier, the titular primate is the central character in a wildly popular online MMORPG. The game is owned by Célestine Tech, a company owned in turn by Her Grace Alyssa Célestine, the Duchess of Brittany and wife of the King of England. King William has been greviously wounded in a terrorist attack in the months before the story opens. Célestine Tech scientists are now being horribly murdered by parties unknown, their "soul catchers" (devices implanted in their brains to record their personalities and identities) stolen for some devilish reason no one can fathom. Meanwhile in France, the heir to the throne, 19-year-old Prince Merovech, has been dating this purple-haired working-class cutie named Julie, who's part of a gang of the usual idealistic youth activists who view AI's as autonomous beings deserving full civil rights. They've decided that Ack-Ack Macaque is just such an AI, and deserves to be "liberated" from his gamespace. But when Merovech helps them get into the Célestine offices where the game servers are housed, they discover something rather suprising — and Merovech learns a surprise or two about himself.
So as you see, Gareth Powell is not especially interested in reining in his imaginative impulses just because they might be warning signs of impending lunacy. Indeed, giving in to such impulses is often the only way artists and writers break away from the mundane. I am reminded of a comic book artist of my acquaintance, who was told at one point by a reader that he was afraid this fellow's comic series was going off the rails. His reply: "Of course it's going off the rails. How else do you expect me to get it to fly?"
Powell offers grand action setpieces mounted on a huge scale, and yet also a number of charming and touching scenes of personal character intimacy. I especially admired the way Victoria Valois, a journalist whose husband was one of the murder victims, has installed a backup of his personality into her own neural net. Though he's merely a recording, there's enough of his real personality there for them to get into their old bickering ways...and yet they both cherish the limited time they'll have together, even in this virtual state. (Some readers may find it a bit of a stretch that this ex-reporter eventually morphs into a 007-ish superhero, but in the spirit of the story Powell is telling, he manages to sell it.)
Ack-Ack himself is a delighfully gruff old character, with a simple solution (extreme violence) to whatever crisis our heroes face. My friend Richard Klaw, who recently edited the Tachyon anthology The Apes of Wrath, is a deep lover of ape stories, and every time he goes on about them it occurs to me how I've never really thought about them much, nor had any reason to examine their appeal to their most ardent fans. But when as deft and witty a storyteller as Gareth Powell gets his ape on, it's easy to see just what a heap of scruffy fun it all can be. Why, almost as fun as a barrel of something or other.
The paperback also includes Powell's original 2007 Interzone short story version of "Ack-Ack Macaque," which is a very different thing and quite ingenious in its own right. Followed by Hive Monkey.