A couple of book reviews

Mickey7 by Edward Ashton

This was an enjoyable and quick read, although I’d struggle to make a case for it being anything other than that. There’s nothing here we haven’t seen before in terms of science fiction tropes. It’s the Three Cs: a clone, a colony, a first contact. I’ve read better and more elegiac first contact stories; I’ve read better landfall and settlement stories; and there are clones galore in the science fiction canon. Most recently, this reminded me of Mur Lafferty’s Six Wakes, in which a crew of clones wake up on a space ship and have to work out who killed them.

In this case, Mickey is the seventh iteration of a clone whose function is to be the Expendable (in Star Trek terms, a red shirt), who gets to do all the dangerous mission-saving jobs, and is then rebirthed minus the memories he has made since his last backup. The novel begins with Mickey7 in a deep hole and in deep trouble on an icy planet that barely supports human life. All the colonists are on short rations, and their ability to make clones and backups is limited to just the one. Every time he dies, a new Mickey is decanted: he’s already died six different times.

That’s the set-up, and it is, as I said, an enjoyable read. It’s the kind of old-fashioned science fiction that doesn’t make you do too much work, for which I was grateful. It doesn’t start with pages of italics, and the tropes are so familiar that the novel doesn’t waste time on exposition. There is a bit of non-linearity as Mickey7 goes back over his memories, such as they are, gradually filling in the picture of both the stakes and the reason why he’s not popular. The neat trick Ashton pulls is making the first person narrator a bit irritating; and you get the strong feeling that Mickey7 finds himself irritating too.

A Small Town in Germany by John Le Carré

I dropped into Mickey7 after struggling with this early (1968) Le Carré for several weeks. His fifth novel, this one is the first not to feature Smiley. Set in Bonn, which was West Germany’s cold war capital, this is a story of apparent defection and betrayal, investigated by a fairly unsympathetic FO official called Alan Turner. A “temporary” diplomat, an anglicised German, has disappeared with a lot of files. Turner needs to establish whether he was a communist, how much damaging material he has removed — and try not to frighten the horses. Which he immediately does, of course.

In the background are the 1968 student and anti-Vietnam protests, and the feeling that certain German politicians were sliding the country back to fascism — for exactly the same reason as the first time: the national humiliation of a defeat and occupation.

I’m old enough to remember 70s Germany and the Red Army Faction which had its origin in the tumult of 1968, but most of that is in the future of this novel, which is very much focused on a Bonn which never quite comes to life on the page. There are protests and riots, getting closer, but you never really gain a strong sense of the atmosphere of the town or the time. The hunt for the defector is well handled, with each interviewee revealing more and more damaging information until the picture slots into place, like one of those moving tiles puzzles.

But this is not Le Carré at his best; it’s a kind of lacklustre version of a Harry Palmer novel. For the completists only.

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