"You humans are far too irresponsible and squabblesome to be allowed free rein."
'Hive Monkey', the follow up to Gareth L. Powell's 'Ack-Ack Macaque', serves as a reminder of just how effective a tool everyone's favourite foul-mouthed, cigar-smoking, Spitfire-flying, gun-toting primate is for exploring the interface between humanity and technology that used to be the domain of cyberpunk. It also serves as a reminder for just how much fun Ack-Ack Macaque is, and how Powell manages to be charming and engaging whilst he pulls the rug from under both his characters and his readers.
'Hive Monkey' jumps straight back into the world of 'Ack-Ack Macaque', with Victoria Valois and Ack-Ack Macaque just having time to get bored of life after their adventure piloting the dirigible Tereshkova before science fiction writer William Cole wakes up to find his murdered double in his on-board cabin, plunging the cyborg ex-journalist and the artificially uplifted monkey headlong into another chaotic adventure where the fate of the world is at stake.
One of the striking things about 'Ack-Ack Macaque' was how it played with Dickian science fiction tropes to undermine the stability of its fictional world. When Ack-Ack Macaque is rescued from an immersive virtual world only to find himself in a zeppelin-filled alternate history in which France and the UK formed a political union in the 1950s, the seasoned SF writer can't help wondering if the reality of that world is about to be stripped away, too. Like the world Michael Moorcock sets up in 'The Final Programme', the world of 'Ack-Ack Macaque' is solid enough to support the story but fragile enough to induce a healthy paranoia in the reader. 'Hive Monkey' continues this tradition by introducing multiple alternate realities and the ability to travel between them, a very Moorcockian notion. One of the alternate realities is even suggested to contain a world where France and the UK didn't unite, and jet travel developed and overtook zeppelins. This is very reminiscent of Philip K. Dick's 'The Man In The High Castle', and the tricks Dick uses to insinuate that neither of the worlds in his novel are our world. However like in the previous book, Powell uses this to create a quite effective underlying sense of unease.
Adding to the layers of confusion and realities is the presence of William Cole, a struggling, drug addled science fiction writer wracked with grief in the mold of Vonnegut's Kilgore Trout. Paul, Victoria's dead husband digitally uploaded into the airship's computers, enthuses about Cole being a combination of Ballard, Dick and Chandler, but Cole sees himself as a washed up hack churning out generic product and dreams of writing respected literary fiction. While Cole allows Powell to engage in some good matured, self deprecating ribbing of the public image of SF writers, and kick starts the overall plot, he also plays a deeper thematic role. Alternate universes are compelling because they allow us to ask questions about how things could have turned out differently. How much of our current situation is set in stone, dictated by our character, our outlook, our perspective, and how much is it mutable, depending on the whim of chance? This is the question asked about our world at large in any alternate history, but William Cole allows Powell to bring it back down to a personal level. Cole is a mess because his wife's baby died before it was born and the grief tore them apart, so Cole was denied a loving and supporting family. The Bill Cole he meets from an alternate reality, before his death, is a heroic leader of a revolution, but in his timeline his daughter survived and was born and he got the family William never got, which forced him to mature and become a better person. By being forced into his doppelganger's shoes, William undergoes the same journey to become his better self.
William Cole's relationship with his double is mirrored by Ack-Ack Macaque's relationship to the Leader, an alternate universe version of himself who becomes the head of a multi-dimensional cult intent on colonising different timelines. 'Hive Monkey' really delves into the sadness and loneliness that is at the core of Ack-Ack's character, and Ack-Ack is confronted with this directly in the form of the Leader. As a character, he is already bitter and cynical, so it's easy to see how this could be twisted into the megalomania of the Leader. But ultimately, Ack-Ack realises that he does have a family, in the shape of Victoria, Paul and K8. The Leader is Ack-Ack deprived of his family, a worst self whose tragedy echoes that of William Cole's.
The technological focus this time round is provided by the Gestalt, a hive mind cult run by the Leader, who are all connected via the gelware in their brains, the same technology developed by Celeste that resides in Ack-Ack Macaque's and Victoria's heads. The Gestalt present as a democracy, but it is truly under the control of the Leader, or rather, the Founder, a female uplifted macaque from a different timeline who has been training the Leader as her protege. They represent the fear that all the democratising and utopian ideals of technology could be subverted by powers that be as a form of social control, to turn people into their mindless slaves. This would obviously be a concern to the futurists hoping to upload their minds into the internet come the singularity. However democratic a technology may appear to be on the surface, it's still something created by companies and corporations, people with agendas who may have very few scruples about how that technology gets used. With talk in the UK about regulating the internet, these issues could not be more timely.
For all the seriousness and depth of its themes, 'Hive Monkey' never loses the sense of fun that made 'Ack-Ack Macaque' such a joy. Which is quite impressive, when you consider that Powell isn't afraid to play hardball. Ack-Ack, Victoria and William all get well and truly put through the wars here. A lesser writer might have shied away from putting William through the death of his wife twice, or ending the book with K8 still hooked up to the Gestalt. And although the gang manage to forestall the apocalypse again, the links at the bottom of the news articles that pop up again throughout the text subtly remind us that the Celeste probe is still en route to Mars, with its cargo of uploaded minds.