Revisiting SF Site reviews, I find that the motifs of Edge are somewhat similar. Edge was a book I thought I would like, but as the reivew makes clear enough I didn’t like much at all. Fundamentally the characterisation is all a little trite and obvious, and even in 2010 all-powerful anarcho-hackers were a bit of a cliché. They aren’t less of a cliché now.
Thomas Blackthorne (a nom de plume of John Meaney) has created in Edge a near-future Britain which is in many respects hardly distinguishable from the present state of that green and pleasant land. It is a country of privatised surveillance, economic angst, and fears of arbitrary terrorism — like today, except more so. In a world where the United States has broken up into fissile fragments, and the fundamentalist President of the rump US destablises what seems to be a fragile world disorder, Britain has seen the return of legalised duelling. Knives are now ubiquitous, and the most popular television show features a series of duels. Private citizens can demand satisfaction, and failure to deliver results in the forfeiture of life or of money (in one of the nice touches, among the wealthy this has already resulted in a strictly ritualised approach to duelling).
All the exposition is very much in the background, gradually revealed over time. The novel begins with Josh Cumberland, a former member of an elite unit within the (itself elite) Special Air Service, driving in a fury into the English countryside, his alienated wife by his side. Their marriage disintegrates in these opening pages, as they are both haunted by the thought of their daughter, in some kind of vegetative state after an incident whose nature is only gradually revealed to the reader. Cumberland — made up of fundamentally decent impulses wrestling with post-traumatic horrors and increasing paranoia, and possessed of highly lethal fighting skills and highly infiltrative coding skills — is by far the best thing about this book. His character draws one into Blackthorne’s world.
Unfortunately, other characters are not quite so vivid. A therapist, Susanne Duchesne, is asked by Broomhall — the rich, widowed, drunken father of a shy, terrified, boy called Richard — to cure his son of haplophobia — the fear of blades. Duchesne is a preternaturally skilled therapist (her techniques are borrowed from Neuro Linguistic Programming) but, as a character, is kind of boring. Her skills are so indistinguishable from magic that there seems little she can’t accomplish using mirroring, hypnotic trances, and so on. After the first session, young Richard goes missing, and Cumberland is recruited as a private agent in the search. Duchesne, for reasons that increasingly go beyond professional embarrassment at failing to predict what the boy would do, joins in the search.
The story runs out of steam somewhat about a third of the way through. The moment when I felt that all the promise of the initial premise, and of the character of Cumberland, was going to be less than fully realised was when the runaway Richard Broomhall falls in with an all too clichéd group of vaguely anarchic underground tech geniuses, one of the great tropes of modern dystopian fiction.
I read this book immediately after Michael Shea’s The Extra, previously reviewed on this site, and while Edge is more accomplished piece of literary work, The Extra was a whole pile more fun and readable. Why was this? There was a certain depressive, rather funereal tone to much of Edge, without it ever becoming satisfyingly Gothic or neo-Gothic. This dystopia is a nation far along in the terminal phase of decline, rather than the colorful, chaotic world of The Extra. Perhaps this sense of decline and defeat seeps into the prose. Secondly, both Cumberland and Duchesne are so accomplished in their different ways that there is little tension in reading about their search. This is notwithstanding their increasing need for each other, which is nicely conveyed by Blackthorne.
Edge is far from a bad novel, indeed it is in many respects an exceptionally well written story and one featuring a memorable character in Josh Cumberland. In discussing the novels of Wyndham Lewis, George Orwell wrote that they were faultless in terms of technique and innovation, but lacked “some literary vitamin” that engaged the reader and kept them reading. While Edge is not entirely deficient in that vitamin, it is somewhat undernourished by it.