April 2004
2004 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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Labyrinth Key by Howard Hendrix
Del Rey /Ballantine/ Random House Trade: ISBN 0345455967 PubDate: 03/30/04
Review by Larry Pfeffer

320 pgs. List price $13.95
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At times Howard Hendrix' The Labyrinth Key seems like a maze of twisty passages. It mixes ideas from physics, philosophy, religion, and cryptography with more common SF themes -- virtual reality, AI, and the merging of man with machine. If those were not enough, we're also treated to a U.S./Chinese spy crisis, information warfare, shootouts in historic places, a vital clue (or should I say, key?) hanging in an art museum, and some clever allusions to classic SF stories. This book is NOT light reading; along with ample action, you'll find complex, speculative ideas, tightly intertwined. Nevertheless, it's an interesting read, if your head doesn't explode.

The plot: In Hong-Kong, Dr. Jaron Kwok, a scientist/codebreaking genius employed by the US National Security Agency, re-enters a VR world largely of his own creation. He believes he can find there the key to what he/his employers are looking for, if he can survive doing so. The result is a smoldering outline of Kwok, some melted VR gear, "ashes" that appear to be all that's left of him, and a cyberspace-wide broadcast by Kwok of his final, enigmatic experience. These touch off a crisis between the NSA and the Chinese equivalent (the Guoanbu), because Kwok had been working on a quantum computer that would (among other things) be able to crack any code possible. The NSA's James Brescoll brings in the Professor Ben Cho to investigate, the Hong-Kong police assign Detective Lu, and we're never quite sure who's working for the Guoanbu.

Then it starts to get *COMPLICATED* because: Kwok had been using software developed by renegade hackers in Cybernesia to surreptitiously tap much of the world's computing power for his work. The prototype quantum computers have disappeared. The Guoanbu is working with Chinese gangsters and religious extremists. There's a faction fight between several factions in the NSA, and Kwok's "ashes" are actually a powerful form of Binotech -- biological nanotechnology. After many a philosophical concept and plot-twist (culminating with the destruction of Sun Yat-sen's tomb and the near-starting of World War III), we learn that Jaron Kwok still survives in cyberspace, and -- I'd tell you more, but I don't want to spoil the climax.

Hendrix' novel has both interesting ideas and an action-packed plot -- not an easy task with the characters tossing so many complex ideas about, but he manages the mix pretty well. The writing style fits the story fairly well, though occasionally the dialog or narration borders on "lecturing" to get yet another idea across. With so much of the book focused on action and speculative concepts, the character development suffers by comparison. The characters are not as complete or well motivated as they might be. As I read it, I didn't find myself identifying that closely with Ben Cho. I hope next time, Mr. Hendrix won't include quite so many ingredients, so the flavor of those remaining can come through stronger.

On the other hand, I enjoyed the references to stories by Alfred Bester, Arthur C. Clark, and Cordwainer Smith. Dr. Paul Linebarger, who wrote under the pen-name Cordwainer Smith, is present in this story under yet another name, and his "Instrumentality of Mankind" plays a role in the story, however improbable. Hendrix is has woven fiction around fact here: Linebarger was involved in intelligence in China -- and was Sun Yat-sen's godson -- just as is his namesake is in this tale. My biggest gripe, however, is with the book's ending. Without spilling too many beans, I think the author's quantum computing is too powerful a deux ex machina, and I wish he had given us a less pat finale.

If you like open-ended speculation on weighty concepts (Think GODEL, ESHER, BACH, but with more action) then this is a book for you. (Hendrix thoughtfully includes endnotes and a bibliography for the interested reader.) If you enjoyed Snow Crash -- or especially if you wanted the Cryptonomicon to go on longer -- then you'll probably enjoy finding your way through this particular labyrinth.


2004 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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