November 22, 2019

Review: Cowboy Angels by Paul McAuley.

The siren song of alternative timelines is a tempting one. Are there other realities blossoming constantly from our own? Is there a reality out there where Brittany Spears is president, or World War II never happened? Or are things finitely probable but largely impossible? This week, we take a look at Paul McAuley’s new book, the Cowboy Angels out from Pyr Books.

Fans of this space will remember our reviews of Mr. McAuley’s outstanding The Quiet War saga, as well as its follow up, Gardens of the Sun. In the Cowboy Angels, the author delves into political intrigue and the concept of alternate Americas. In the book, a breakthrough in quantum physics allows one reality, dubbed The Real, to access alternate realities or “sheaves”. It is discovered that in some of these sheaves America has been taken over by communism, or decimated by World War III, and convert operatives are dispatched to repair democracy in these alternate realities. The plot serves as an excellent thought experiment for how history might have unfolded; one amusing constant that is noted by the characters is the omnipresence of Coca-cola and Elvis!

But all is not what it appears to be, in the Real or elsewhere… pay particular attention to the reality that they refer to as the Nixon sheaf, as it will sound eerily familiar. It soon becomes apparent that other time-hopping agents from future realities have their own reality-altering agendas, and the hunt is on as chief protagonist Adam Stone and friends embark on a reality spanning adventure. The idea of the Turning Gates hinge on what could have happened if computer pioneer Alan Turning had immigrated and been allowed to work unhindered in the United States… fans of the movie and television series Stargate will have no trouble identifying with the concept. The Cowboy Angels itself is such a rich idea, it would have no trouble expanding into a television series of its own… the possible adventures in alternate sheaves are endless, and the idea of combining a political thriller with an alternate reality science fiction is an enticing one.

Cowboy Angels raises some interesting questions amid the action and intrigue; when should we meddle in others affairs? What’s acceptable in terms of ‘culture’ and what is just plain wrong? What does democracy and being American mean, and when is it ok to step outside the bounds for the greater good? Perhaps the biggest fear I would have as a Brookhaven researcher is that somewhere, out there, there may be an America much more advanced than my own that doesn’t have my best interests at heart!

Read the Cowboy Angels for a good romp though the last half of the 20th century and a look at what might have been. Reading it brought back grim memories of a Cold War childhood and the world we expected to inherit. The book is definitely destined for a spot in the science fiction pantheon of alternate histories and has plenty of room for a sequel… I wonder if there’s an alternate reality out there where Astroguyz is a top paying blog?

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