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Re-Coil by J.T. Nicholas2 stars
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If you’ve dedicated your life to being a fan of genre fiction, you lose to some degree the right to critique a specific work solely for being a kludge of secondhand ideas borrowed from other works. It isn’t that originality in genre fiction is impossible. But as a general rule, SFF, like any genre, is an exercise in recycling familiar themes and tropes. Distinction and excellence lie in the execution. So while it isn’t fair to pick on J.T. Nicholas’s Re-Coil for being essentially Altered Carbon meets Illuminae, it is fair to pick on it for being bland and unexciting.

J.T. Nicholas is a North Carolina writer (married to popular YA writer Julie Kagawa) with a fondness for neo-noir science fiction adventure. Re-Coil is a book that tries to pull together multiple influences into a cogent narrative. It starts as a noirish posthuman space opera detective story, with characters trying to solve their own murders, and somehow by the end of it all, everyone is fighting zombies mind-controlled by a malicious AI in the darkened corridors of a derelict spacecraft. While Nicholas cannot, for the most part, be faulted on technical grounds, the end result isn’t nearly as entertaining as it sounds.

It’s half-past the future and Carter Langston is a deep space salvage worker. On what he thinks is going to be a routine job, Langston cuts his way into a derelict only to make the startling discovery of a dead man in the airlock. Whoever this guy was, he had locked himself in, and disabled the door controls so that no one could get into the airlock from either inside or outside. That’s definitely strange, but things get even more alarming when Langston breaches the interior to find the ship chock full of corpses, one of which, to his extreme horror, suddenly and impossibly attacks him. Langston barely fights his way free, and then someone, somewhere, remotely seizes control of the vessel, fires up the engines, and sends it on a one-way course into the sun.

So far, so good. When Langston awakens, he is in a new body, on board a space station orbiting Venus. This future, you see, is one in which — as in Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon — people have their consciousness stored in a core located near the brain stem. If your coil, ie. your physical body, dies, you can either revert to a stored backup, or have the data from your old core (assuming it wasn’t destroyed) transferred to the core in your new coil. The re-coiled Langston at first has no memory of what happened aboard the derelict, and he’s alarmed to hear that the clinic had some serious difficulty with his stored backup, which was found to be nearly corrupted even though the security for backups is supposed to be impregnable.

Langston manages to contact Chan, a crewmate from his salvage team who has been re-coiled into a male body, something she finds awkward and Langston finds disappointing. Clearly, something intensely criminal is going on. After all, whoever was responsible for leaving a bunch of dead bodies on a spaceship and then murdering the salvage team that found it is now sending bad guys after them. These are the kinds of bad guys who walk into public places like nightclubs and hotels and just start shooting guns all over the place, which I think would be counterproductive to keeping a low profile as criminal conspirators.

Eventually we learn what’s what, and it involves corporate malfeasance so utterly evil that even the corporate malefactors think they’ve gone too far. Langston and Chan must team up with the very super-assassin sent to kill them, a character who’s so arch that even his parents must have known what his ultimate career path was going to be, because why else would you name your child Korben with a K?

I’ll start with some of the things I thought Nicholas did right. The premise of storing your mind and implanting it into new bodies is a common enough one. (Altered Carbon certainly didn’t invent it, and this book might also remind readers of Mur Lafferty’s Six Wakes.) I was impressed by the way Nicholas had thought through some of the social implications of the technology very well, while at the same time being puzzled by the ways he didn’t. For instance, early in the book I was curious as to why people in this future were bothering with organic bodies at all, when they could as easily be implanting into artificial bodies or even forsaking the physical world altogether to live in virtual upload civilizations. I mean, Charlie Stross and Ken Macleod have been writing stories about that for 20 years. We have to get halfway into the book, but Nicholas does eventually address this. It’s all down to how even the most lifelike of androids never caught on because they could never quite escape the uncanny valley, and how the cores themselves are partly organic, having to be grown inside each new coil. I liked all of that.

I also believed how this technology had ended up perpetuating class divisions, with the wealthy able to access the most high-end, custom designed coils money can buy, while the poor have to make do with whatever body in whatever gender is available to them, like it or not. The poorest of the poor might even be stuck in a disabled body. Because of this, many re-coiled individuals experience serious body dysmorphia, with some able to adapt much better than others. But this brings us to the bizarre way in which gender comes into the picture. Langston describes how he never had a problem on the one occasion he was re-coiled into a female body, and how he even found its smaller size made working salvage easier. But I honestly couldn’t figure out, in a future where the birth rate has fallen to nearly nothing because re-coiling has given everyone a chance at immortality, why gendered coils were a thing at all. I can see there would be people who’d want the experience of sex, but I could also see how having a gender identity of any kind might be irrelevant to a significant portion of the population. Yet here we are in Nicholas’s future, where strict adherence to binary gender assignment is a thing for some reason. And I just plain found it ridiculous to be told that re-coiling technology had magically ended racism, particularly given that wealth inequality and class division has historically been linked to race. If anything, I can see a future in which the rich are able to grow perfect, custom bodies to be one that would not only be racist as hell, it might only avoid straight-up eugenics if there were severe legal consequences.

I know all of the above might have sounded like nitpicking. But in an SF novel, especially one premised on technology that would have civilization-altering impact on the social fabric, these little world building details are everything.

In addition to flawed world building, Nicholas’s writing favors detail in the tradition of hard SF, and this presents issues when it comes to action scenes. The final chapters of the book detail an assault on a spacecraft overtaken by a rogue AI that has transformed its crew into mindless murder-zombies. Most of us know where we’ve seen that one recently, but I will say that whatever its flaws, Jay Kristoff and Amie Kaufman’s YA bestseller Illuminae delivered its zombies-in-space action scenes with a breathless and truly cinematic level of intensity. Nicholas’s action scenes, in contrast, feel as lifeless as the waves of anonymous mindless coils charging their way into our heroes’ gunfire. In the end, Re-Coil proves that tried and true genre tropes need something more than to be given just any new body. They need a body with energy, passion and life.