Title: Equations of Life
Author: Simon Morden
Series: Samuil Petrovich #1
Published: 1 April 2011
Genre: science fiction, post-apocalyptic
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Samuil Petrovich keeps a low profile. After escaping the nuclear fallout in St Petersburg, he lives a spartan life in the post-apocalyptic London Metrozone. He’s just another immigrant, just a postgrad student, not worth paying attention to. In truth, he’s a genius when it comes to physics and computers, and he’s got a SECRET PAST that he’s kept neatly covered up for the last few years. The last thing he wants is to get noticed.
But then Petrovich sees a young woman about to be kidnapped and instinctually moves to rescue her, dodging bullets and running from gangsters until his weak heart fails him and he’s rushed to hospital. The woman turns out to be the daughter of Hamano Oshicora, a Japanese mobster with criminal operations all over the city. Oshicora is extremely grateful to Petrovich and wants to reward him. Detective Inspector Harry Chain wants to know who Petrovich is and why he’d put himself in hospital for a stranger. A Ukrainian mobster named Marchenko wants Petrovich dead for ruining his chance to kidnap Sonja Oshicora. Sonja herself is now drawn to her cute young rescuer. And Petrovich is getting way more attention than he’s comfortable with.
He tries desperately to avoid getting involved with any of these people but instead he keeps getting more tightly wrapped up in their troublesome affairs. In addition, he and his research partner are on the verge of making world-changing breakthroughs in physics. Then something called the New Machine Jihad comes along and threatens to put London – if not the world – through a second Armageddon. Instead of just disappearing like he planned to, Petrovich reluctantly tries to do the right thing and save the city.
I decided to split this review into two parts, one for the first half or so of the novel, and one for the second. I felt quite differently about them, and most of what I want to discuss about the novel falls into one of the two sections.
So, Equations of Life starts out quite well. The London Metrozone is a post-apocalyptic society, but not a dystopian one. It’s recovered somewhat from Armageddon, a series of nuclear explosions set off two decades ago, in European cities. Obviously life isn’t the same, especially if you’re a poor immigrant, but on the whole it’s not too bad – there are cars (including self-driving models), a university, restaurants and cafes, decent infrastructure, reliable telecommunications etc.
I’m a bit sketchy on the political details, because Morden avoids info dumping and his characters have no reason provide a detailed explanation of global politics. What I do understand though is that Japan has been destroyed and America essentially destroyed it, or at least a political movement/party in the USA called the Reconstructionists did. For the sake of his lost homeland, Oshicora is creating a highly realistic VirtualJapan in which the Japanese diaspora will be able to hold on to some experience of home.
He asks Petrovich to help with the project, but Petrovich politely declines on the basis that getting involved with gangsters will be fatally bad for his health. He plays the situation very carefully, so that Oshicora is not offended but has great respect for him. In general though, I thought that Petrovich wasn’t really as cautious as the blurb suggests. He avoids attention, but once he finds himself in compromising situations he lets his temper flare. He tends to hurl a combination of brutal honesty and Russian invective at the rather dangerous men who have him at their mercy at various points in the novel. I thought this made him a more interesting character though; I had pictured someone older and rather timid, but Petrovich is smart, smart-mouthed, and often daring. What I don’t like about him is his tendency to do all his swearing in italicised Russian. And since Petrovich can barely utter two sentences without cursing in Russian, this quickly gets very irritating. It’s also a tad incongruous – he speaks perfect English otherwise, so I don’t see why he’d switch languages to swear.
Anyway. Another interesting character is Sister Madeleine, a genetically (I think) enhanced nun who is two metres tall, wears some pretty awesome body armour under her habit and carries a massive pistol. She’s a proper nun – vows and all – but she’s also a bodyguard for her church’s priest, who is targeted by the gangs of a nearby ghetto. Sister Madeleine saved Petrovich and Sonja Oshicora when Petrovich’s heart gave in, and from then on the two have a an uneasy kind of connection. with the result that Madeleine breaks her vows to help Petrovich when the shit hits the fan.
Which brings me to the second, less positive part of the review, about the second, less interesting part of the book. After a certain point – when the New Machine Jihad starts going seriously destructive, I guess – the book gets and chaotic, silly, and wasteful. Some of the more interesting ideas set up earlier in the novel get used in boring or relatively minor ways. I’d guessed early on what the New Machine Jihad was, only to find that it was actually a more dull version of what I’d assumed. Petrovich’s research partner Pif (Epiphany Ekanobi, a physicist from Nigeria) has done breakthrough work that Petrovich then builds upon, but it doesn’t have any real bearing on the plot. I hope Morden is at least saving that seed for later books.
The whole thing just descends into an absurd action/disaster plot. Petrovich runs around the city – sometimes accompanied by Madeleine – trying to stop villains, save victims and not die horribly as the city is destroyed by machines and the people turn violent. He gets the shit beaten out of him then keeps going like a good reluctant hero should. It reads like it would rather be an action movie than a book and drags on for far too long. Morden mentions in the acknowledgements that this novel began as a series of short stories set in this world, and it’s in this part of the novel that the seams start to show. There are too many ‘episodes’, too many different encounters, which is understandable if Morden tried to fit all those stories into a novel shape. Understandable but untidy.
As he runs for his life, Petrovich’s character becomes increasingly implausible. Note that he’s a skinny young man with a weak heart. Saving Sonja Oshicora puts such a strain on it that he had several heart attacks on the way to the hospital. He needs a new heart, and spends the rest of the novel worried about the twinges in his chest. And still he makes it through numerous heart-stopping fights and other dangers. I don’t know where he got the skills to survive either.
You have to wonder why Petrovich is willing to put himself through all this. Turns out he’s looking for redemption: he did bad things in his past and he’s trying to make up for it. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Petrovich has to profess his determination to save Sonja, the Metrozone, the world, etc. with as much blustery Hollywood bravado as he can muster. It’s so ridiculous, like this moment when Petrovich learns that Sonja is in danger again and decides that he’s going to stand and fight instead of running away:
“I am the one who decides when I’m going to die, you little shit. You want this done the hard way? Fine. I will take you down. I will cause you so much grief and pain that you’ll wish you’d never been born. And you can tell Sonja this: I’m coming. One way or another, I’ll save her. Have you got that?”
Petrovich also claims that he decided to “spit in the face of destiny” that he wants”to make a difference”, that he “made a promise I have to keep” even though it might all cost him his life at the end. He keeps chucking out lines like this, although the ones i hated the most came from Madeleine, explaining why she chose to risk her life helping Petrovich:
I’m possessed by some overwhelming madness that forces me to desert my vocation, my sisters, my duty, my priest—and go with you instead, you foul-mouthed, unbelieving, weak, selfish criminal who by some freak chance or divine plan has not only captured my stone-cold heart but seems to embody the virtue of hope in a way I have never experienced before, inside or outside the church. That’s why.
I cannot take this seriously. I’m not interested in reading any more of it either. When I started Equations of Life I thought it could be one of the few series I actually stick with. By the end, I’d decided to stop at book one. I liked the Petrovich I met at the beginning, but I have no interest in the clichéd, hard-headed bravado-spewing hero who he proved to be later on. Guys like that are all over the damn place and there are far more exciting ideas to be found in other novels.
The cover is really cool though; I almost bought the whole series once, just because they look so good.