Book Reviews · Science Fiction

Bear Head by Adrian Tchaikovsky

WELCOME TO HELL CITY, MARS

Jimmy Martin has a sore head. He’s used to smuggling illegal data in his headspace. But this is the first time it has started talking to him. The data claims to be a distinguished academic, author, and civil rights activist. It also claims to be a bear. A bear named Honey.

Jimmy has nothing against bioforms – he’s one himself, albeit one engineered out of human stock – and works with them everyday in Hell City, building the future, staking mankind’s claim to a new world: Mars. The problem is that humanity isn’t the only entity with designs on the Red Planet. Out in the airless desert there is another presence. A novel intelligence, elusive, unknowable, and potentially lethal. And Honey is here to make contact with it, whether Jimmy likes it or not.

Thank you to NetGalley for the early reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review!

Now, if you, like me, didn’t realise that this was a sequel to Tchaikovsky’s Dogs of War, and haven’t read that book, don’t worry! Bear Head can be easily enjoyed as its own novel, and there is enough contextual background within the narrative for the reader to understand what came before and why it affected what is currently happening.

It is set in our world, in a near future in which certain animals have been engineered to hold human intelligence and walk among us on two feet. At the time the story takes place, the battle for the rights of these Bioforms has already been fought and won, but things are beginning to deteriorate again, with the issue of ‘Collaring’, an electric collar that would force these creatures to obey their masters without question, being widely debated, just as the earth is slowly falling apart and Mars is being prepared for colonisation.

This is the place our three main characters orbit around. Jimmy Marten is one of the workers sent ahead to prepare the city on one of the planet’s craters; Honey sends a digital copy of her mind there in the hopes of contacting Bees, the mysterious and dangerous Distributed Intelligence that has retreated to Mars to escape being destroyed on Earth; Carole Springer is assisting Warner S. Thompson, a powerful man with designs on gaining power, in securing a stake in Hell City.

Each of these characters has a very different voice, and I enjoy that aspect of Tchaikovsky’s writing; the book opens with Jimmy narrating, and his was probably the hardest mindset to get into, because he is very brusque and cynical, throwing information around only when he is complaining, but he does bring humour to the story, albeit a dark humour. Carole is a little more immediately interesting, because right from the first few lines you can tell there is conflict within her, the way certain thoughts cut off before reaching their conclusion, and the way she interacts with her boss. She was probably my favourite character.

Honey, being an academic, is the most logical and clear, and she tends to bring together the information found in Jimmy and Carole’s chapters and contextualises them somewhat, because of the knowledge she holds of the past and of both human and Bioform activities. She’s definitely the most loveable character, and though she isn’t physically present much, she was probably the one I could imagine visually as I read her story.

The political and social commentary of this book is also brilliant, and very current. The character of Warner S. Thompson, particularly, was one that I read as being heavily based on Donald Trump (though I can’t say if that was definitely the author’s intention); a man who, in his speeches, leaves sentences half-complete, letting others fill in the gaps. A man who relies on fear-mongering and on pursuing the policies that will benefit him best and bring him the most power. A man who will use whoever he can and drop them as soon as their usefulness is over. A man who gets everything he wants just because nobody would dare to say no. He was chilling to read, but also made me feel a little disgusted, and I am very glad he did not get his own point of view chapters.

I won’t go into too much more of the plot, as usual, because the joy is in the reading, and I hope I have convinced you that this is worth picking up! This was my second Adrian Tchaikovsky book, and I must say I am very much enjoying his style. He’s definitely pulling me slowly into the realm of science-fiction, so you may see some more of that genre on my reading list in the coming year…

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