The Age of Scorpio. Book Review

the-age-of-scorpioTHE AGE OF SCORPIO by Gavin Smith

Gollancz,  512pp, £16.99

Review by Julian White

There are three strands to Gavin Smith’s ambitious fourth novel. Far in the future, a pair of high-tech thieves attempt to lay their hands on a strange cocoon. Way back in the past, the wise woman of a Bronze Age tribe battles against a cruel and seemingly supernatural enemy. Meanwhile, in the present, a girl attempts to track down her missing sister, only to find herself caught in a conflict that might lead to the end of the world. Question is, what links this trio of chronologically disparate narratives?

Actually, “ambitious” hardly begins to describe it. What we have here is an amazing demonstration of Smith’s range as a writer. The Bronze Age story is a gritty low fantasy infused with Celtic gloom, with a tough, indomitable heroine who will eat human flesh if it will help her on her quest, and a range of love-to-hate-’em villains (the pick, a sadistic thug who cuts off his victims’ heads and grafts them, still living, onto his own shoulders so that they can witness him violating their bodies). The present day story, meanwhile, plays out as a snappy spy thriller featuring a centuries-old James Bond-style spook who offs his foes with bullets filled with nanites.

The backbone of the book, though, is its hard SF strand. This takes place in a far-flung future where the people you are likely to encounter have evolved not just from humans (“monkeys”) but from lizards, felines and insects, and where it’s routine for those in dangerous occupations to have cloning insurance. The protagonist is a maniacal gun-for-hire called Scab, the most dangerous man in Known Space, someone who prides himself on taking on apparently suicidal missions – a character we encounter through the eyes of his unwilling sidekick, Vic, a seven-foot-tall insect of a nervous disposition who is driven to taking sedatives by unpredictable boss, and whose only consolations in life are watching insect-on-human porn and honing his capacity for sarcasm (not a natural insect talent; of the four “uplifted” species, felines are supposed to be the best at it). It’s with this pair of rakish antiheroes that The Age of Scorpio really shoots into the stratosphere.

And therein lies a problem. Solidly entertaining though the “past” and “present” strands are, if you’re anything like this reviewer, you’ll want to skip through them so as to get back to the bits with Scab and Vic, and this in turn is likely to have a knock-on effect on the reader’s ability to grasp the convoluted-verging-on-tenuous overall story arc. Given how brilliant much of The Age of Scorpio is, it seems churlish to say it, but you can’t help spying within its unwieldy bulk the shape of a leaner, meaner work – no sword and sorcery, no conspiracy theory shenanigans, just superlative, full-throttle, Harry Harrison-style SF. That said, it’s fiendishly inventive, highly accomplished and compulsively energetic, and you won’t want to miss it.