Tuesday, August 19, 2014

If You Liked Rocket Raccoon, Try Airplane Monkey!

Sarah and I were both huge fans of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice (you can read Sarah’s review here). We’ve spent the last several months watching the literary awards roll in for Leckie’s singular and inventive story of a former spaceship out for revenge. When the British Science Fiction Association announced the choice for Best Novel of 2013, Ancillary Justice had tied with Ack-Ack Macaque by Gareth L. Powell, a book whose synopsis made “former spaceship out for revenge” sound positively pedestrian. From the back cover:

In 1944, as waves of German ninjas parachute into Kent, Britain’s best hopes for victory lie with a Spitfire pilot codenamed ‘Ack-Ack Macaque.’ The trouble is, Ack-Ack Macaque is a cynical, one-eyed, cigar-chomping monkey, and he’s starting to doubt everything, including his own existence.

To be honest, that’s the sort of pitch that usually elicits a chuckle but then disappoints me. With so many self-consciously far-fetched ideas in play, it’s no mean feat to keep a book from spinning wildly out of control. But if the British Science Fiction Association said Powell’s Nazi-fighting monkey pilot book was actually one of the two best sci-fi novels of the year, then I’d give him the benefit of the doubt.

Once I got into the book, things became even more complicated with the addition of a modern day plot built around alternate history, domineering corporations, transhumanists, and nuclear zeppelins. With all these elements crammed together, I’d have been impressed if Powell simply pulled off a crash he could walk away from. Instead, he soared effortlessly. The characters are fun and believable. The plot is engrossing and cohesive (though really hard to convey to a third party -- just ask my wife). There were moments where it's exactly as silly as a warrior monkey book should be alongside moments of genuine suspense and emotional weight.

My title for this review suggests Ack-Ack Macaque as a good follow-up for Guardians of the Galaxy. Despite the shared theme of cybernetically-enhanced mammals with big guns and aircraft, I don’t know that I’d say one is a good match to the other. Ack-Ack Macaque is fairly dark and spends a lot of time considering questions of humanity in a world of cybernetic implants. Guardians of the Galaxy certainly has some heart and sci-fi chops, but keeps things loose and funny. All that said, both works share an important feature of successful high concept media: despite the superficial absurdity of their premise, they play things straight. They don’t wink to the reader or viewer, trying to make sure we know that they know that a talking monkey is silly. Nor do they veer toward grim and gritty excess in order to grind out any trace of silliness. To some degree, both works succeed because their creators believe they can -- no extra support or justification required.

If, after Ack Ack Macaque, you’ve still not had your fill of uplifted animals, try one of these:
  • Hive Monkey by Gareth Powell -- The sequel to Ack-Ack Macaque. I haven’t read it yet, but it seems an obvious place to turn.
  • We3 by Grant Morrison and Frank Quietly -- If you want to read a thrilling and gory action comic that will have you weeping bitterly at the end, I’ve got the book for you!
  • Duncan the Wonder Dog by Adam Hines -- For those who like their talking animal comics with a more philosophical bent.
  • Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIHM by Robert C. O’Brien -- A classic and personal favorite, this children’s novel is quieter and lighter on the sci-fi, but no less engrossing.

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