Up to Eric's Home Page To Index Thu May 24 09:53:45 EDT 1990

Raymond's Reviews #57

%T Terraplane
%A Jack Womack
%I TOR Books
%D May 1990
%O paperback, US$3.95
%P 227
%G 0-812-50623-5

Jack Womack's Terraplane is a dense, paranoid, grim cyberpunk novel with a twist -- most of the action takes place in 1939.

The viewpoint characters are two ex-military types involved in industrial espionage against Krasnaya, the giant industrial combine that owns a future Soviet Union. Luther is the brains of the team; Jake his super-competent, emotionless hatchetman. They are sent to extract a scientist named Octobriana, but betrayed; the three capture their betrayer Skuratov but are forced to fly back in time, landing in the New York City of an alternate history's 1939.

Luther is black and Octobriana an obvious foreigner -- and they quickly discover that this makes the mean streets of New York in 1939 a far more dangerous place for them than their home time. And then there are the odd divergences -- in this world, Lincoln was assassinated early and Teddy Roosevelt freed the slaves. An influenza-like plague called DS, far deadlier than AIDS, has killed millions. Technological progress has run differently, perhaps faster than in the history Luther knew.

Caught out of time, Luther and Jake find all their sophistication has become a dangerous naivete -- and Octobriana has caught DS. They must get home to their high-tech future if any of the three is to survive -- but their only ticket out is Skuratov, who had hold of the time-projection device when he was ejected from their plane. And somehow, he seems to have recruited powerful local help...

The action in the first part of the novel alternately drags and lurches; Womack doesn't really seem to hit his authorial stride until the viewpoint characters land in 1939. Once we're there the characters' attempts to cope become darkly amusing, a caution to anyone who still believes the past was a simpler and more `human' time.

I can't say that I think the novel is entirely a success. Luther and Jake's weird argot seems to me contrived, and their future not really a believable extrapolation of our own; only the negatives are familiar. And the idea of a time machine implemented as a video cassette! In general the logical justification for the plot is kind of weak; Womack seems to be more interested in symbolism and mordantly `artistic' social criticism -- a touch of literatus disease, there. But overall I applaud what Womack was trying to do; it's audacious and tough-minded and displays considerable talent and originality.

On the evidence of Terraplane, I'm going to look out for a used copy of Womack's first novel, Ambient, and look forward to his third one. It should be interesting to see what direction he grows in.

Up to Eric's Home Page To Index Thu May 24 09:53:45 EDT 1990

Eric S. Raymond <esr@snark.thyrsus.com>