Wednesday, December 27, 2023

Titanium Noir, by Nick Harkaway

The idea of mashing up detective fiction and sci-fi isn't new. Isaac Asimov did it in The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun in the 1950s (the latter of which I reread last month). As a kid, I was a big fan of Robo-Hunter in 2000AD, in which hero Sam Slade is a space-travelling version of Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade.

As I've argued before, I think science-fiction and the detective story share a lot in common anyway, not least in the way we read them. We follow a plot but we're also looking for clues - in the detective story to work out whodunnit, in sci-fi to understand how this world operates differently from our own. We also read (and write) such stories with a knowledge of what's gone before in the genre, so judge each new work on its ability to follow conventions while both avoiding cliche and adding something new.

Titanium Noir is much closer to a Dashiell Hammett style thriller, with narrator Cal Sounder a world weary, wise-cracking gumshoe acting as a buffer between the police and super-rich elite called "Titans" in a gritty near-future. When one of the Titans is found dead, apparently having shot himself, Cal can look into things on a softer, less formal basis than the police, but also without the protection that goes with carrying a badge.

What makes this world different from our own is that the super-rich can afford injections of Titanium 7. As we're told early on,

"It's a rejuvenation treatment given by infusion. It turns the body's clack back to pre-puberty, then runs you through it at speed. It's also used to stimulate regeneration of severely damaged organs and limbs. It really does make you young again, but since it starts with an adult body, it also makes you bigger, hence the name [Titans]. Oh, and it's so expensive almost no one has it. Strictly for the speciation rich." (pp. 10-11)

There's obviously something in this akin to IVF which also jump-starts the body like putting it through puberty again. As with IVF, the result is painful and takes months to recover from. But Titans then live extremely long lives.

There's a stark division between the Titans who've received T7 and the mass of ordinary, little people who haven't. We see the impact of this on one particular relationship where one party is a Titan. But there's more nuance here than a simple divide between haves and have-nots. Over decades, some Titans have had more than one infusion - each one making them bigger, stranger, something else. There are gradations of Titan, separate from one another, and also families and attachments and conflicts between different groups.

Newly created Titans are also strong and horny, so specialist establishments cater for titanic sex, while the media revels in gossip (and recordings of) the ins and outs of who is doing what to who. Many ordinary people are keen to get in on the action, and to modify themselves to look more like Titans while unable to afford T7. From this one medical intervention has developed a whole culture.

This all makes for a richly drawn environment in which the plot neatly twists and turns. The novel rattles along, zigging and zagging with everyone under suspicion - even the narrator, whose loyalties we're not always sure of. The final reveal of the killer hinges on something we've been told early on - a nicely played clue that seems obvious in retrospect but took this reader by surprise. And it's all wrapped up in 236 pages - a quick, exciting and satisfying read.

Dashiell Hammett used Sam Spade in several stories, and also created other heroes who featured in multiple adventures (ie the Continental Op, Nick and Nora Charles and secret agent X-9). It would be fun to see Cal Sounder in further adventures, exploring more of this world - and Sounder's changed position within it given what happens in this book. But that will have to wait, as first Nick Harkaway is writing a George Smiley novel.

See also:

No comments: