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03/12/2002 Entry: "The Second Angel"

Just picked The Second Angel from my local cheap bookstore, Galloway & Porter, for 2 (incidentally, if anyone wants paperback copies of LtW for only 3, they have loads there).

What The Matrix is to films, The Second Angel by Philip Kerr is to novels - in other words, it's an SF novel that passes itself off as something else and so gets praise from non-SF readers.

This is a bit of a shame considering that it has at least one or two interesting ideas - it's set in 2069 in a world where 80% of the population has a virus akin to HIV called P2, originally spread by blood transfusions. The remaining 20% of the population practices 'autologous' blood donation (in other words, donating blood for your own personal future use); there is also a market for blood as those infected with P2 can be cured with a complete blood change and a few expensive medicines. However, at something like $1.7 million/litre, this cure is beyond the reach of most.

I won't comment on the biological basis of the book, because it doesn't withstand any more than a cursory examination, no matter how many long words he puts in; this is the problem - most of the scientific stuff in the book makes sense, but it all gets spoilt by a few humdingers of nonsense. I wouldn't be too bothered about this if the novel didn't take itself so seriously, but it does.

Since this book is a 'futuristic thriller' (i.e. marketed to the non-SF audience), Kerr has seen fit to litter the novel with footnotes explaining technical terms. In fact, in the first couple of chapters I think probably 10% or more of the text is comprised of footnotes. Why does he do this? I haven't seen this practiced in such volume in any decent SF novel - most authors are good enough to weave explanations in the plot. Kerr is just doing disguised data-dumping.

Even worse, the footnotes are needlessly dense. For example, for the footnote for 'K', he puts 'Kelvin. The SI unit of thermodynamic temperature.'

Is it really necessary to say 'thermodynamic'? I'm not even sure what that means. There are also long and irrelevant digressions into the etymology and meaning of words such as 'utopia'. I think the most amusing one I read was the footnose for the Armstrong Center on the Moon, which says 'Named after Neil Armstrong, the first man on the Moon.'

Anyway, enough with the footnotes. The story centres around the world's best designer of security defences for the huge blood banks on Earth and the Moon (the defences are also laughably feeble for banks that store trillions of dollars worth of blood - I for one believe that the Culture could whip up a superior design in a few minutes). His daughter contracts a disease which necessitates regular transfusions of uninfected blood, and if he paid for treatment he'd go broke in two years. Consequently, his company views this as a possible security problem as he could get bribed, and decide to kill him and his family. No, I don't see the logic either.

He survives, his family dies, he decides to get revenge by breaking into a blood bank and assembles a motley crew of two dimensional loveable rogues. Add a stereotypical enemy and an uninspiring hero and the only thing that could save this novel is good ideas and science, which it is sorely lacking. Sure, the scenario isn't bad and the science isn't *too* offensive in its inaccuracy, but it's nothing we haven't seen before.

For some reason, the New York Times says, "Embracing the wonder and terror of existence by exploring the intricacies of quantum physics, gene theory and computer technology... his most intellectually satisfying novel yet." I can only conclude that the reviewer had never read a decent SF novel before.

It is telling that the bio in this book says his last four novels, including this one (bought for $2.5 million!?), are in development for film. This is not surprising, as they read as if they were intended for the screen. None have actually been produced, though. Why? Because they're shite.

Well, no. I've read another of Kerr's novels, A Philosophical Investigation - it was pretty good, actually. Set in the near-future, it didn't have as much in-your-face science and the characters were much more realistic. I get the feeling that The Second Angel was written far too quickly as a money spinner. The sad thing is, it probably did make a lot of money, and it received favourable reviews. I personally believe that a more telling measure of the novel's success can be found from the tone of the Amazon USA reviews.

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