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Cowboy Angels Paperback – January 1, 2011
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"This gripping tale, which calls to mind both the Stargate TV series and any number of spy thrillers. . . provides nonstop action, a believably damaged hero, and a complex set of mysteries that will keep the reader breathlessly turning pages."
"A clever book. . . McAuley deals with his themes intelligently and with spark. Even just as an entertaining story, this is a captivating read, depicting realistic action, unsettling events, complex characters, and great pacing. A must read."
—Dreamwatch Total Sci-Fi
"Fast moving, clever, great visuals. . . this book was great entertainment, intelligent, and enormous fun. . . Recommended."
"One of the best SF novels of the year."
About the Author
Paul McAuley’s first novel won the Philip K. Dick Award, and he has gone on to win almost all of the major awards in the field. For many years a research biologist, he now writes full-time. McAuley’s novel The Quiet War made several "best of the year" lists, including SF Site’s Reader’s Choice Top 10 SF and Fantasy Books of 2009. He lives in London. Visit him online at unlikelyworlds.blogspot.com.
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Now, what does all of this have to do with "Cowboy Angels". Well "Cowboy Angels" has a similar premise. Adam Stone is a "cowboy angel", a CIA operative trained to infiltrate alternate universes and help depose their governments. In Stone's timeline the Soviet Union fell apart in the 1940s and Alan Turing, instead of being persecuted for his homosexuality and committing suicide, emigrated to America and worked with Richard Feynman to develop a quantum computer capable of opening a gateway to another universe. The United States in this timeline, referred to as "The Real" uses the new technology to colonize uninhabited timelines and to expand its influence into other timelines by overthrowing their governments, creating a multi-universal government united under the slogan "Many Skies. One America". After several years of this the American people tire of brushfire wars fought in alternate universes and elect an alternate Jimmy Carter who promises to end the wars. Adam Stone testified about the Cowboy Angels program before the alternate universe's version of the Church committee and has been retired for several years, living as a farmer in an alternate universe where human beings never evolved when he is contacted by the CIA about his colleague and best friend, Tom Waverly.
Waverly was another Cowboy Angel who did not take well to retirement. After the cowboy angel program was shut down he became involved in various clandestine CIA activities and when the novel begins it is revealed that he has been traveling between timelines and murdering the same woman, a scientist named Eileen Barrie, over and over again. Stone is called out of retirement to track Waverly down, stop him before can kill any more versions of Eileen Barrie (referred to as "doppelgangers") and bring him in and this is where the fun begins. And fun it is, there are a lot of really cool ideas in "Cowboy Angels" and some really great scenes but unfortunately it just doesn' t hang together, more than once I found myself backtracking asking "wait, which alternate history version of New York City are we in?" and the ending seemed tacked on. After reading the novel I was disappointed, there are a lot of neat ideas in it and some very well written and evocative scenes but I can't help but feel that it could have been great instead of merely being a diverting and entertaining read.
The formatting on the Kindle edition of this book is also screwed up. It doesn't use the standard Kindle fonts and instead uses some kind of bit mapped font. There's no table of content and you can't adjust the text size the way you can on other Kindle books.
This one is a spy/thriller novel set across several iterations of America in the multiverse. Our main character, Adam Stone (was McAuley being ironic with that name?), is a former undercover agent for the Company (his home universe's equivalent of the CIA), infiltrating other universes (or "sheaves") and researching the best way to make America in that universe democratic and powerful like the America in his home universe, or "the Real." After he retires, he gets pulled back in to the intrigue after a former Cowboy Angel -- what the early agents for the company called themselves -- goes rogue and starts murdering the same woman over and over again in multiple sheaves.
The book is definitely a thriller, with PLENTY of action throughout, but it is also very intelligent, and not just in the details and variations of the different universes we pass through as the story unfolds or in the intricacies of the snappy and twisting plot. The book gives a science-based view of how alternate universes would work, branching and collapsing as various choices and events -- some that matter and some that don't -- occur. It also explores several themes, like loyalty, patriotism, and free will and determinism. In particular, however, the story focuses on what it is that makes us unique, and why our choices really do matter. This book was what Walls of the Universe hinted at but never actually achieved.
The one drawback of the book was its British spelling and phrasing. I know that McAuley is British and that this book was first released in the UK, but for the US version, I think the editors should have "Americanized" the language of the book. Of course, maybe in Mr. Stone's home universe, America retains the British spelling of all words.
But on the other hand the foreign policy/alternate universe theme is interesting and thought provoking. The "Real" universe that started alternate universe travel is not our own, but ours appears as one of the important settings. It's fun to look at American history and foreign policy from an outside/inside perspective. The CIA plays a big role, as do nuclear weapons. So if you like the hard-sf Alternate History genre, this is worth reading.