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Review © 2004 T. M. Wagner.
Book cover art by Christian McGrath.



Wyrmhole, the debut novel of Australian Jay Caselberg, is a fair-to-middlin' noirish detective story. As a debut it's promising, hinting that Caselberg has what it takes to be a terrific writer once he stops relying so heavily on formula. Wyrmhole itself isn't much more than a routine pastiche upon Philip Marlowe with some iffy SFnal window dressing. All the private-eye clichés suit up and report for duty. You got your rich guy's femme-fatale-ish daughter, you got your anguished lover searching for a missing person (in a modern twist, it's a gay couple), you got your waif in peril, and once, our hero, Jack Stein, oblingly walks into a dangerous situation simply so that he can get knocked out from behind. Bogart covered all of this 60 years ago. Still, if you like Chandlerian detective story tropes and are happy to see them put through their paces any old time, you'll likely find this a pretty fair little yarn.

Jack Stein is a "psychic investigator" living in a near-future habitat called the Locality. He is hired by a corporation with mining interests on the planet Dairil III to find out exactly why their entire mining crew there disappeared. The plot then follows the usual pattern of red herrings, double-crosses, and beatings-by-thugs as Stein unravels an intricate web of deceit involving what exactly was discovered on Dairil III, and who stands to gain or lose by its exploitation.

As a detective story, it's all right as far as it goes. I don't read too much detective fiction in the first place — well, okay, I haven't really read any apart from reading both The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon after seeing both movies. Oh yeah — I also read The Alienist. So most of my understanding of what the genre tries to accomplish comes from cinematic sources, which, I admit, are not always the best. But in Wrymhole, what we seem to get is a pretty good example of a writer following the hard-boiled genre's blueprints pretty faithfully. Most of what happens in the plot is propelled by genre conventions, not by anything resembling the way real people might behave in a given situation. What this means is that there's no real reason whatsoever for the Rich Bitch Daughter Who Has Something to Hide to come to Stein's grungy apartment near the bad end of town and try to seduce him for information, other than it's just the kind of thing Rich Bitch Daughters Who Have Something to Hide are supposed to do according to "How to Write a Hard-Boiled Detective Story." At least Caselberg has better sense than to have Stein call her "doll face" or something similar.

Also, it isn't hard to predict where most of this is leading, particularly what was discovered on the mining planet. The book's title is, like, kind of a huge huge hint. But in good noir, whether it's predictable or not, the climax really ought to deliver a doozy of a payoff. I was really hoping for one, and one never came. There was a mild surprise, but one that doesn't really work once you think about it. (Here's a spoiler in white: A minor character thought dead for most of the book turns up alive, and is revealed to be the chief provocateur in everything. But Caselberg never convincingly explains how this character wields so much influence with the corporation that owns the mine.) Mainly, Caselberg devotes his attentions to building a not-entirely-plausible bond between Stein and Billie, the aforementioned Waif in Peril.

From an SFnal perspective, Wyrmhole has some infelicities too. For one thing, Jack Stein's "psychic" powers. I usually roll my eyes when science fiction stories try to include paranormal elements. But while Caselberg commendably isn't trying to pander to the Sylvia Browne crowd here, he also isn't consistent in how he depicts Stein's abilities so that rank-and-file readers can suspend disbelief for them. Stein's talent, originating in his military past, is depicted as largely intuitive. Stein as a soldier proved to have extraordinary good luck that kept him out of danger. But in the novel, this luck doesn't seem to serve him well. He gets roughed up a couple of times, because in all hard-boiled detective stories, you gotta have a scene where Sam Spade gets a little too close for his own good and the bad guy's goons gotta teach him a lesson, see. Also, most of Stein's talents lie in dreams. He induces sleep and receives clues while in REM. But frankly, I have to ask what good psychic dream clues are if they consist only of murky, confusing visions. If I'm a detective who can utilize what is, for all intents and purposes, magic, and it doesn't give me names, addresses and phone numbers, then I want my money back. (But of course, if it worked that well, where would you get your detective story from?) And in the end, it isn't really through utilizing such clues that Stein solves the case. His dreams point him in certain directions in the early part of the novel, but as it all winds down Stein is relying on evidence gathered throughout his investigation, just like any other detective.

Thus the whole "psychic investigator" angle seems like a tacked-on gimmick that Caselberg came up with so that his book wouldn't draw too many comparisons to Blade Runner. He does too little with it, and what little he does, he doesn't do that well.

More interesting is the setting. The Locality is a self-sustaining enclosed city that literally crawls across the landscape like a giant caterpillar, as it uses nanotech to draw upon natural resources in a nonstop cycle of construction and recycling. Towards the "front" end lies New, the upscale part of town with the freshest architecture and swankiest neighborhoods. As the Locality presses on and fashions change, New shifts back to Mid while a new New is built up. At the very back lies Old, where the oldest structures eventually fall apart. Naturally, social stratification has fallen into the usual pattern, with the haves and have-nots inhabiting their respective ends. Caselberg, in a canny touch, explains that the Locality was the high-tech end result of that symbol of American gentrification, the gated community. In trying to create the ultimate gated community, the Locality's corporate masters just ended up with a city like any other. But they don't care about its problems, because as long as there's always a New, their bottom line is met. It's a sharp critique of corporate short-sightedness and the reality of class in a society that likes to think it's done away with such distinctions. Best of all, it doesn't resemble Blade Runner. It's a nifty enough concept that I wish it inhabited a better story than this one.

Caselberg's writing does have appeal and Wyrmhole successfully holds your interest despite its being the kind of book you can pick apart once you've finished it and sit down to think about it. There's all sorts of room for Caselberg to improve upon what he's started here, and I think future installments will be worth keeping up with. Followed by Metal Sky.