New York Blues – Eric Brown (2001)
‘Hal Halliday is just another of the lost, crowding the streets of New York, mired in a 21st Century that is going nowhere. His business partner is dead and Hal is keeping their missing persons business going without really knowing why.
When a holodrama star approaches Hal to find her missing sister Hal is drawn into the world of dreams set up by VR magnate Sergio Mantoni. It is a world built on the desperate lives of a population of a ruined America; a world facing a new challenge from VIREX, an underground movement dedicated to ending the false promise of Virtual Reality.’
Blurb from the 2002 Gollancz Edition
Hal Halliday, Private Eye, still in mourning from the death of his partner Barney and the loss of his girlfriend, Kim, is commissioned by vampish VR starlet Vanessa Artois (One can’t help thinking her name should have been Stella) to find her missing sister, Canada.
This is a step up from ‘New York Nights’ in many ways. The pace is faster, the mood is darker, and although initially one might feel that the plot of NYN is being rehashed, we are taken into areas where it seems no one can be trusted.
Brown seems to have found his feet here, and having established his world with NYN can afford to dive straight into the action and shadow Hal as he follows clues and leads from location to location. A sub-plot involving members of the anti-VR organisation VIREX ends up being a little redundant and adds nothing to the plot other than to give Hal a clue as to the identity of the kidnapper.
An interesting feature of this novel is that Brown extrapolates the ambivalent nature of contemporary internet sexual identities to its logical conclusion. People entering VR sex-sites can choose the age and sex of their avatar. Mantoni’s hitman, Pablo for instance (a large muscular moustachioed Mexican) has regular meetings with Mantoni in a VR environment and adopts the persona of an attractive blonde female, often resulting in a sexual encounter with Mantoni. Mantoni is fully aware of Pablo’s ‘real’ form, but is nonetheless happy to engage in the sexual activities which Pablo initiates.
Halliday himself, in order to set a trap for the kidnapper, poses as a teenage girl in the Eros VR site and finds himself in the position of experiencing a teenage girl’s sexual arousal at Mantoni’s overtures.
Brown does not explore the issue in any depth, but thankfully neither does he moralise or allow Halliday outbursts of righteous self-disgust at these feelings.
The subject matter of course, relates directly to contemporary worries about older men (or indeed women) ‘grooming’ children on the internet whom the subsequently meet in the real world, which no doubt strikes a chord with many parents of internet users.
It’s a novel of a certain type, in that it is a lightweight, enjoyable read. ‘For those who like this sort of thing, then this is the sort of thing they will like’. It will appeal, I would imagine to those who don’t read a lot of Science Fiction.
My main problem with it (and it’s a minor niggle) is Halliday who, despite his dead boss and absconded ex-girlfriend, is just too patient and too likeable. Detectives should have psychological problems and speak rudely to anyone within earshot, or else have a deep dark secret. Even Sherlock Holmes had his seven percent solution to take the edge off his too-good-to-be true-ness. They should be tolerated only because they are the only ones capable of solving the case. Being nice is just not an option.