"Everybody loves the monkey."
'Ack-Ack Macaque' is a combination of pulpy adventure story and modern technological concerns. It is set in an alternate history Europe in which Britain and France formed a political union in 1959. One hundred years later, the world has taken on a distinctly diesel-punk tone, with nuclear zeppelins existing alongside sleek computers and tablets. This allows Gareth L. Powell to write a story with a vaguely steampunk setting that captures all the fun and action of 50's pulp adventures whilst exploring themes and ideas more usually found in cutting edge hard SF. The end result is a book that's an absolute blast and a total breeze but packs more of a philosophical punch than one might initially imagine. Also, there's a talking monkey, which science shows makes everything at least twenty percent better.
Ack-Ack Macaque is a popular character in a MMORPG, a cynical, cigar-chomping, gun-toting talking monkey who pilots a Spitfire in a virtual World War II. Just before the centennial celebrations of the formation of the Anglo-France union, Prince Merovech, heir to the throne, finds himself caught up in a plot by radicals to free the artificial intelligence Ack-Ack Macaque from the game. The only hitch is, Ack-Ack Macaque isn't an AI, he's an artificially uplifted monkey with electronic gelware surgically enhancing his brain. Meanwhile Victoria Valois, an ex-journalist whose life was saved by replacing large sections of her brain with gelware, finds her husband murdered and the electronic back up in his head stolen, and her investigation into his death leads her to uncover a conspiracy involving Prince Merovech's mother, Duchess Celestine, and the surgeon who operated on herself, Ack-Ack Macaque, and Prince Merovech, Dr. Nguyen.
While 'Ack-Ack Macaque' has all the stylistic trappings of steampunk, (I know said diesel punk at the beginning of the review, but I really think we as a people need to stop using '-punk' as a suffix), in the pulpy atmosphere and the retro-futurist setting, it's really cyberpunk masquerading as steampunk. The book is really about the sinister multinational corporation Celeste Tech's plan to manipulate the Anglo-France union into nuclear war with China so that its cult of transhumanists can upload their brains into new android bodies and rule the world. Mind uploading and the singularity are arguably the central theme of modern SF, but rarely are they dealt with as seriously as they here. Powell explores the existential, moral and ethical doubts that are frequently swept aside so we can vicariously enjoy the rapture of the nerds. Digital consciousness raises a whole host of ways in which people might be taken advantage of. The ability to digitally scan and upload the contents of our minds doesn't necessarily mean that the individual scanned will experience continuity, arguably what you are doing is creating another, totally sentient copy of the original. Then there is the matter of self copyright; Dr. Nguyen makes a digital copy of Victoria without her consent. Celeste Tech also plan to build an army of android slaves - this is the origin of the experiments that gave rise to Ack-Ack Macaque. Thus they have built over-ride codes into the electronic brains of Victoria and Ack-Ack Macaque, allowing Dr. Nguyen to render them helpless and servile with a few words. Rather than a utopian future in which everyone is remade equal, the singularity as imagined by Celeste Tech is simply a new arena in which the powerful will be able to exploit others.
'Ack-Ack Macaque' also manages to subvert the expectations of its steampunk settings in other ways. From its setting you might expect all the characters to run around in petticoats, top hats and the like. Yet everyone spends the whole book in sensible, practical, modern clothes. Prince Merovech spends most of the story in a hoodie and jeans. More importantly, the book subverts the normally passive roles of female characters in the 50's pulps it draws on. Victoria is a character with action and agency, intelligent and good in a fight, who has her husband fridged to motivate her rather than the other way round, and the author doesn't dwell on her looks when describing her. Julie, the Prince's love interest, refuses to let him save her from her abusive father, instead choosing to stand up to him herself. I also like that the police are proved totally wrong in their assumption that Paul, Victoria's bisexual husband, was murdered by his gay lover. And though by the nature of its format, both of the villains are somewhat one dimensional and hysterical, I like that the book tries to add depth to Dr. Nguyen anyway. The man is a total creep and a truly nasty piece of work, but he does what he does because he sees it as part of his role as a doctor to 'fix' humanity by uploading everyone into android bodies.
Then there is Ack-Ack Macaque himself. A larger than life talking monkey is exactly the kind of thing that falls flat on its face if you half ass it, but through Powell's commitment to his creation and the character's boundless energy, he is utterly charming and nonstop fun. Part of the reason why he works so well is that despite the daffiness of the idea Powell takes Ack-Ack Macaque seriously as a character. Ack-Ack Macaque started out as a monkey used in illegal animal fights before being artificially uplifted and placed in a computerised world he was convinced was real, where he had to experience all his comrades being killed off one by one. We understand where Ack-Ack Macaque is coming from as a character, and we sympathise with his genuinely traumatic past, so when he goes in guns-a-blazing and pulls off another ludicrous escape not only is it ridiculously fun, it matters that much more. What looks like a slight, fun idea on paper hides a darker truth. As such he is a perfect metaphor for the book that takes his name.