A Super-Soldier Who Talks To Washing MachinesAuthor Mark L. Van Name has managed to find a new spin on the sprawling canon of post-human cyborg stories: Jon Moore, the hero of his "Jon And Lobo" series, is the only cyborg in a civilization that believes cyborgs don't exist. And he's a super-soldier who is constantly battling his instinctual desire to kill. Those two elements elevate the Jon And Lobo novels above your usual scifi kill-porn. Minor spoilers ahead. So far, two Jon And Lobo novels have been published, by Baen Books. The first book, One Jump Ahead, won the Compton Crook Award for best first novel, and the second one, Slanted Jack, just came out. A Super-Soldier Who Talks To Washing MachinesIt's not much of a spoiler to give away the backstory of these books. The hero of the Jon And Lobo books, Jon Moore, is the only survivor of a nanotech experiment that ended in some kind of unspecified disaster. Everybody believes those experiments left nobody alive, and since then human science has moved in the direction of organic augmentation. So Moore is the only human who has the power of nanotechnology, which gives him a superpower that nobody's expecting - but it also means that if anybody knows about him, he'll be captured and dissected for the rest of his probably short life. The most entertaining part of Moore's nanotech power comes from his ability to talk to machines through the nanotech in his body. All appliances in the galactic civilization can talk to each other wirelessly, and Moore is able to tune in on their communcations frequencies and speak to them, gaining useful intel. The machines usually have very limited concerns: the washing machines only care about clothes washing, the drinks dispensers babble about what sort of drinks people prefer, and the cooking machines complain that people order the wrong food. Van Name writes, early on, that washing machines are "the gossips of the appliance world," and it turns out to be very true. The other interesting thing about Moore as a hero is that he agonizes about killing people. A lot. And then, some of the time, he kills them anyway. He's not Batman, with an iron-clad rule against murder. But he's also not Rambo. He's a soldier-for-hire who's seen more than his fair share of action and has several belts worth of notches. But at least half his obsessing planning, before each operation, is aimed at avoiding casualties. And when he does kill, he obesses about it afterwards. And at the same time, he enjoys killing. He gets a thrill out of it, and has to remind himself not to look at his opponents as corpses who don't know they're dead yet. This internal conflict gets even more interesting when he teams up with people who enjoy killing a lot more than he does. In the acknowledgements to One Jump, Van Name thanks David Drake for his help with the book, and it does feel very similar to Drake's brand of space opera/military science fiction. There's the cool hardware (the "Lobo" of the "Jon And Lobo" moniker), the detailed descriptions of every military operation from the planning stage to the last drop of blood, the camaraderie among the fighters, and the reminders that war is hell. Some of the long passages describing tactical stuff or delving into Jon's feelings get a bit repetitive. Van Name's writing feels as if a gruff old soldier/geek is telling us about his greatest campagins. His writing is at its best when he embraces that dorkiness, as in this passage where Jon meets Lim, his old comrade in arms. She used to be wiry and boylike, but now she's gotten re-engineered to look voluptuous, with a gorgeous face, big breasts and curves. She explains to Jon that it's so the people she does business with will both underestimate and remember her. And then we get this:
She leaned forward and looked straight into my eyes. "Now, what can I do for you?" For a moment my mind jumped the business tracks and led me at high speed toward a contemplation of what this woman, this amazing body in front of me, could do for me, and then I more fully appreciated the power of Lim's approach. I looked briefly away, regained focus, and this time when I gazed into her eyes I made myself see only a person on the other side of a negotiation. "You're right," I said. "Your look is a powerful tool. I lost focus for a moment, and immediately I forgot about you as a person and instead thought only about your body as a sex object. I have to work to maintain my focus even now." She smiled and leaned back, waiting.
It's so dorky, it's sort of charming. It also captures a lot of what's likeable about Moore as a protagonist: he's very, very earnest and straightforward, even when he's attempting to con people or pull something clever. In the first novel, we learn that in some parts of the galaxy, corporations are so powerful the government can barely touch them. They operate like quasi-governments, but also like organized crime. One Jump Ahead is a page-turner, with a plot that races forward and has enough twists to hold your interest. Mostly, though, it's a cool read because of its clever twist on the cyborg-soldier premise, and because Moore's struggle to be an honorable and human person in a brutal universe is genuinely compelling.