Systems

by W.T. Quick

Cover image

Publisher: Signet
Copyright: December 1989
ISBN: 0-451-16342-7
Format: Mass market
Pages: 251

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Josh Tower is a former black ops soldier who gave up that life for freelance work finding hidden information on the Internet so that he could be with the woman he loved. When she's killed in a freak air-taxi accident, he becomes obsessed with discovering why she died. He finds something, but goes on a drunken destructive binge and then can't remember what he found (this has to rate as one of the stupidest plot devices I've seen). He has to get back in shape, pull his life together, and reproduce his search. Oh, and that's when the military black ops units start trying to kill him.

If this sounds like the plot of a mostly plot-free action movie, you've got the right idea. It's a military special-ops thriller with just enough (largely unexamined and unused) SF trappings in the background to claim to be an SF novel. This is, to be fair, very much not my sort of book, but even if you like this story, this is a poor execution of it.

The promising part of the premise for me was Tower's skills as a "data hunter," to use the book's term. There could have been an interesting, or at least entertaining, story in his searches through databases for the trail of actions and decisions that led to the death of his wife. Even if Quick mixed in some action-movie raids on corporate offices to get bits of data that one mysteriously has to acquire in person, I still would have been mildly interested.

Apparently Quick wasn't interested in that part of his background at all. We never get a description of anything Hunter does on a computer, other than huddling in front of one for hours on end. Even the results he gets are simplified tidbits of plot advancement, like the name of a shell corporation they have to go find. Instead, all the loving detail is saved for weapons, very bloody combat scenes, and some old-fashioned torture porn. (A significant subplot involves one character being drugged and tortured into becoming an insane psychopath — in a way that bears little resemblence to real mental illness, of course — just because he might make an interesting weapon against our protagonist.)

Essentially all of the SF in this book apart from the initial (and reasonably well-written) hook with the air-taxi is told rather than shown. Tower spends undescribed time on a computer and then shows up with results. A preternaturally intelligent child hacker spends more time on a computer and comes up with different results. We're told of, rather than shown, the final electronic showdown with the lurking evil masterminds of the plot (who get about a paragraph of description each, don't show up until well into the book, and exist only to be lurking evil masterminds). There is a high-speed train system that I wish we had in reality, but it serves no particular plot purpose that a regular train system wouldn't have also served. It's just there to add some futuristic window dressing. Even the lovingly-described futuristic gun fails to be anything more than a powerful gun. (And please don't call your cyberpunk hackers "face dancers" just because they have implants in their head. This term has already been used in SF, and it doesn't work as a homage to reuse it for something completely different.)

The mismanagement of the SF background isn't necessarily a fatal flaw in the book if the plot were good in its own right, but it's not. Tower's own motivations are as simplistic as an action-movie hero: revenge, mixed with a few father issues. (One climactic scene actually ends with him declaring "finally, I'm a man," which is just as eye-rollingly dumb in context as it is out of context.) And the romantic subplot is even worse. The female lead should not overturn and essentially destroy her life due to love of the protagonist formed solely on the basis of a few interactions in a hospital and his passing similarity to her dead husband. Even the characters can't figure out why she's coming with him and question it multiple times, which is usually a bad sign for the plot.

Add to that gratuitously bloody and disgustingly violent fights, stock movie-style insane killer villains, and the continued refusal of the author to let the readers see any of the details of the underlying plot in anything but summary form, and I fear Systems is a waste of time. The one good thing I can say about it is there are some halfway okay scenes of life in a slum below the surface of polite civilization, but it's far too short and too minor to save the book.

This is what I get for reading a book for fairly silly reasons. Avoid.

Rating: 3 out of 10

Reviewed: 2011-11-15

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21