BYSTANDER 27 by Rik Hoskin
Angry Robot p/b £9.99
Reviewed by Nigel Robert Wilson
This is a graphic tale of our modern times with a well-defined atmosphere and beautifully written action sequences. Our hero, a former special forces soldier, named Hayes is catapulted into a quest for truth following the traumatic killing of his pregnant wife during a fight between two costumed superheroes. The title of the book emphasises the repellent anonymity of being collateral damage.
If anything, it is a cautionary tale. This is what happens if you dwell on events and chase their meaning down that rabbit hole we choose to call the internet. The truth that Hayes finally discovers is that reality is not what we like to think it is. The truth is not out there; it is down here somewhere among the clutter we call culture.
Hayes and his wife, Melanie, live in a New York increasingly dominated by costumed superheroes who are either protecting the planet from destructive entities or using advanced technology to pursue an advantage over lesser mortals. During a very public spat between Captain Light, the super goodie, and The Jade Shade, a super baddie, a television helicopter is thrown into the watching crowd killing Melanie, among others.
Hayes is a witness to this awful destruction and is justifiably incapable of dealing with it. As Hayes tries to process the needless death of his wife, he watches a film of the entire episode on the internet. He then sets out to make sense of other similar incidents. Very quickly, he discovers similarities among the bystanders who watch these events taking place. Not only does he see the same faces, but he also discovers that both he and Melanie are to be found on archive films watching superhero conflicts they never, ever saw. Furthermore, they are shown with the child who will now not be born.
He begins to get paranoid that the superheroes or someone behind their activity are creating facsimile people who are then killed off when their usefulness ends. He postulates time travel, but those enquiries draw a blank.
His investigations gradually draw him into a confrontation with costumed superheroes and super-villains. He manages to steal some of the equipment used by the lower grades of costumed entities. All through this period, a memory of Melanie heckles him from beyond the grave. This allows the narrator to clarify the direction in which the plot is going. This is a good narrative device that intensifies the reader’s participation in the book.
Hayes follows Captain Light as he believes this is where he will find the answers to his questions. A confrontation between Captain Light and a super-villain called Morgan-le-Fay, who is obviously invading from a parallel reality, draws Hayes into the conflict. This is a superbly presented episode that radicalises Hayes into becoming a player.
It would be quite inappropriate to reveal the denouement other than to say that Hoskin holds the entire plot together right up to the end, even allowing for a notable change in pace and narrative as the conclusion of the tale becomes manifest. This is good science fiction with a very challenging narrative twist towards the end. Excellent value!