Paul McAuley combines a thriller plot with an alternate worlds premise in Cowboy Angels (2011), an enjoyable if perhaps overlong story with a rich premise. The novel opens in the late 1970s. In the parallel universe known as “the Real,” the CIA has gained access to technology enabling them to move from one alternate reality to another. They’ve been using Turing gates to empire-build across the multiverse, initiating operations in other realities to extend their power and promote their vision of democracy. Now, in the wake of a scandal, new president Jimmy Carter is shutting the sketchy program down – the “cowboy angels*,” operatives who work in the alternate sheaves, are being pulled out.
A few years later, enter Adam Stone, a retired cowboy angel who’s left the Company behind to start a quiet life in a rustic sheaf called the First Foot. He’s recruited from his Manhattan farm by an old agency connection to help them locate his old friend Tom Waverly, now a rogue agent. Waverly, a hard-drinking, tough-talking, self-styled patriot, has been causing havoc across the multiverse by murdering several “doppels” of a particular scientist. Partnered with Waverly’s daughter Linda, an inexperienced new agent, Stone travels through the gates into various alternate worlds in search of Waverly, trying all the while to unravel the motive for his friend’s reckless actions, and gradually uncovering a dastardly CIA black op.
I had trouble getting into Cowboy Angels at first – the prologue made for tough expositional sledding, and the pace builds only gradually, the early manhunt stages not quite cashing in on the juicy premise. But the momentum ultimately picks up, and it’s generally a fun read, particularly later when the SFnal concepts become more integral. This is definitely a book driven by plot and ideas, but to me the ideas shined more: the deft intersection of the SFnal material (alternate worlds, dimensional rifts, time travel) with its political themes of American expansionism, international meddling, and the ironies of “forced freedom.” (There are moments when the left-wing political subtext is a bit heavy-handed, but generally it’s not egregious.) I didn’t find the action or the spy tradecraft quite as compelling, for some reason — perhaps because the characters weren’t particularly engaging. A bit flat, they felt at times like tools of the plot, there to move the story along, discuss the ideas and backfill turns of the plot. A bit disappointing, in that respect. But overall it’s an ambitious novel, generally effective, cleverly blending genres and concepts.
* I have to say it: while thematically effective, the phrase “cowboy angels” makes for unconvincing CIA lingo — and a very poor title, evoking “western fantasy” more than SF-spy fiction hybrid.