Wide World by Paul McAuley
Hardcover - 400 pages (3 September, 2001)
Voyager; ISBN: 0002259036
Review by John Berlyne
Check out this book at: Amazon US / Amazon UK
Paul McAuley is surely one of the UK's most prolific and versatile writers. He writes science fiction, he writes fantasy and not even a year ago I reviewed his near-future bio-thriller The Secret of Life on this web site, marveling at how McAuley's finger always seems to be on the pulse of where the genre is going . Now he has come up with a cracking new near future detective thriller that grabs you early and just doesn't let go.
Whole Wide World is set in London perhaps fifteen or twenty years hence. It is too not long after the terrorist Info War decimated London's IT infrastructure, when microwave bombs took out communications and computer systems and nearly brought the country's economy to its knees. The country is rebuilding itself though, and the knee-jerk reaction of the authorities has transformed Britain into an almost puritanical place. Censorship laws are rigid, an atmosphere of zero tolerance reigns and in London a network of CCTV cameras can track the moves of every citizen virtually from door to door. Soho has become a tourist theme park and the police spend much of their time routing out the organized crime sponsored hackers who run illegal sites through off-shore servers.
In the midst of very plausible setting McAuley's protagonist is a detective-inspector (nick-named Dixon - we never learn his real name!) down on his luck. Once a promising hostage negotiator, Dixon was involved in and (unjustly) blamed for a seriously messed up operation during the Info War in which some of his colleagues were killed. Vilified and shunned by his peers, Dixon has been relegated to minor-league police work in a soon -to-be disbanded IT department.
A young art student is found brutally murdered, naked in a chair in front of a couple of web cams indicating a very grizzly broadcast indeed. Dixon is called to the scene to do nothing more than pick up the damaged computers and deliver them to the lab for analysis, but his instincts and his desire to get back to "real" police work take over and he is quickly drawn into an extremely dangerous and complicated conspiracy in his search for the killer.
This is seriously gripping stuff. Dixon is clever and ballsy investigator, but reckless and headstrong with it. We watch him go head to head with some very nasty people indeed - a slimy scum-bag hacker/sex offender with a wrap sheet as long as your arm, a Cuban based organized crime rough, a super-smooth, super-rich computer genius responsible for the setting up of London's surveillance systems and let's not forget the bad cops. All of these are linked in some way, both to each other and to the dead girl and McAuley gives the reader a hell of ride as we follow DI Dixon sorting it all out.
This is a virtuoso performance by Paul McAuley. I always think it a good sign if I don't get round to making any notes when reading a book for review. With Whole Wide World, I found myself on the last page without having jotted anything down and this indicates (to me at least!) that McAuley had my undivided attention. There is much food for though here too. The Britain imagined by McAuley in Whole Wide World does not require a great leap of imagination to envisage. The recent troubles in Sweden and Italy at the G8 summits could easily escalate into an anti-capitalist, anti-globalisation war against the technological backbone that holds governments together. And Britain has always certainly had its prudish side. It is not too long ago that the Lord Chamberlain's office was banning "controversial" works. Even now there are censorship and anti-pornography laws that US citizens and those of Europe would simply laugh at. And of course, following on from the "Jennycam" culture (assuming, God forbid, it hasn't happened already,) how hard is it to imagine a murder being broadcast live over the Internet?
Whole Wide World is a hugely accomplished work. If they' were all as good as this, it could turn me on to reading many more crime novels. By the same token, it could certainly pull a crime reader much more into the science fiction world. Whatever your preference, this is a fantastic read and I sincerely recommend it.