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REVIEW: Cowboy Angels by Paul McAuley


Title: Cowboy Angels
Author: Paul McAuley
Pub Date: January 11th, 2011
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
High-concept, hard SF alternate history with a spy-thriller edge.

I first came across Paul McAuley’s work sometime in the mid-to-late ’90s with his genetic cyberpunk (genepunk? I’ve always thought this should be a term) masterpiece Fairyland. Since then, I’ve always kept my eyes open for new McAuley novels and have found far more hits than misses among them. While his books span a variety of sub-genres (space opera, alternate history, genepunk, etc.), they share that high-concept imagination that underpins the best in science fiction. It was that same high-concept approach to alternate history which attracted me to his new novel, Cowboy Angels.

Books employing the many worlds interpretation of quantum physics are a dime-a-dozen, and so that on its own isn’t really enough to grab me. However, in Cowboy Angels, McAuley asks a question: what if the United States had found a way to travel between alternate versions of Earth at the height of the Cold War? In our real history, the Cold War was characterized by the domino theory, containment, détente, and proxy wars fought all over the world (Central America, Afghanistan, Southeast Asia, South Asia, etc.). A downright fascinating time period in history, with the all-too-real primacy of the CIA, KGB, Mossad and other espionage agencies. McAuley’s brilliant concept is to introduce parallel worlds as a new front in this Cold War, which to my history-loving mind made me sit up and say: “Right on, this is going to be awesome!”

Cowboy Angels follows one Adam Stone, a retired special operations agent for the CIG (Central Intelligence Group). He has made his career as a spy working to spread US-style democracy across alternate versions of America. We first meet Adam Stone at the end of an era: American policy is changing with the election of the “peacenik” President Carter, and the nature of the Company’s missions is evolving. Adam Stone is comfortable with this change, having grown disillusioned by the manifest destiny ideology that had put him in moral quandaries in alternate Americas. But not all of his fellow agents are as comfortable with their country’s shifting values, and the book’s plot explores the lengths some people will go to in service of their ideology.

The novel’s plot is structured like a spy thriller, with Stone being called out of retirement to track down his friend and former partner, Tom Waverly. Waverly has gone on a killing spree across multiple alternate realities – killing the exact same woman over and over again. Neither the local authorities in those realities nor the Company know why. And so Stone gets reactivated to try and bring his friend in. What follows is a spy-thriller, but rather than have us jet off to exotic locales, McAuley takes us to exotic versions of the United States. Stone’s hunt for Waverly takes us to a kleptocratic New York decimated by nuclear war, to a United States that had been leveled in an apocalyptic World War III, and to a version of history very much like our own.

This is not a James Bond-style spy caper, where our hero gets to enjoy the good life in sunny Macao, Monaco, or other fancy places that begin with the letter “M”. While some of the alternate realities our hero visits seem bucolic, even pastoral “untouched” realities have their gritty undersides. And McAuley artfully exposes us to that, using blood and sinew to temper the novel’s escapism.

In terms of general concept, Cowboy Angels gets ten out of ten points for me. The idea of Kennedy-era expansionist/messianical foreign policy applying across alternate worlds practically begs to be written. Once again, McAuley’s ability to identify and execute on a particular concept is compelling.

However, for me, the book relied too heavily on this (admittedly awesome) concept to carry it. There were three weaknesses that detracted from my enjoyment of the book. Successful execution of both the novel’s concept as well as its spy-thriller plot structure requires distinctive settings, and the concept enables for some fascinating alternate versions of our world. While we get tantalizing glances into some fascinating settings (Nuclear Winter America, an American government-in-exile in Cuba, etc.), the majority of the book takes place in settings only slightly different from what we know. The settings we explore are different enough to remain distinct, but I think there was a wasted opportunity to explore some really interesting alternate versions of America. With so much of the book’s backstory dealing with the Cold War and the fight against Communism, it struck me as particularly odd that at no time did our hero venture into a Communist version of the USA.

The second, less significant, issue I found lay in some aspects of McAuley’s characterization. In particular, Stone’s romantic interest (which serves as a significant motivator through much of the book) struck me as particularly under-developed. Overall, I bought the character: I felt Stone was believable, and engaging. But I was unable to shake that arms-length disconnect and engage enough with the character enough to lose myself in his world(s). It was close – almost nailed just right – but I found that I just didn’t feel enough of Stone’s motivation. The solid plotting and awesome concept were enough to carry me over this weakness, but I wasn’t close enough to the character for McAuley’s gears and cogs at work to disappear.

The third, and least significant, problem I came across lay in the book’s pacing. Please don’t get me wrong, this is a fast-paced book, and it reads very quickly. However, the pacing is relatively unvaried throughout the text. This is an issue I often find in spy-thrillers: too often, I suspect their authors and editors believe readers equate escalating, no-respite events with being a page-turner. This leads to a go-go-go pacing which can be tiring if not offset and balanced against the emotional arc of the story. Just yesterday, Ursula K. Le Guin posted a great essay on this very subject. By giving his character – and the reader – room to catch one’s breath, McAuley could have deepened my emotional connection to the character and the story. By slowing down the story in a couple of places, the overall result would have been more emotionally powerful.

Cowboy Angels Cover by Sparth

Cowboy Angels Cover by Sparth

Visually, the novel is attractive and stands out nicely. The cover was designed by Jacqueline Nasso Cooke and features an illustration by Sparth (aka nicolas bouvier). The cover really communicates the novel’s feel, contrasting futuristic Turing Gates against the decidedly-less-futuristic trains emerging from them.

Much as I enjoyed Stone’s adventure, my own personal tastes would likely have preferred to see the book’s backstory moved to the front. The transition from “manifest destiny” to “peace and reconciliation” and how that transition unfolds amongst the Company’s agents would be a really fascinating story, and one particularly relevant in today’s geopolitical environment. McAuley has set up a fascinating universe with infinite potential for clever, high-concept, and emotionally powerful stories. I would love to see a prequel set in this same universe exploring the Church Committee’s investigations into the Company’s clandestine operations.

Cowboy Angels is a very enjoyable book. The underlying concept is strong enough to overcome the minor weaknesses in setting, characterization, and pacing. That concept was enough to get my imagination firing, and often that’s exactly what I look for in SF. If you enjoy a good spy thriller, or get a kick out of playing with alternate histories, this book is definitely worth your time.

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