Metal Fatigue by Sean Williams

Swift, 1999, 392pp, £16.99
reviewed in Foundation 79, Summer 2000

Science fiction has often used the tropes of the crime novel. It is easy to understand, superficially at least the two genres seem to follow the same basic pattern: a mystery is gradually revealed. That is probably why the two tend to appeal to the same readers, people who enjoy the intellectual puzzle that is the core of the story. But we have to be careful, because the puzzles that we are solving are fundamentally different, what appeals intellectually to the same readers may not work structurally for the writer. In science fiction the reader has to come to understand the nature of the world, the background to the picture; in crime fiction the reader has to come to understand the nature of the crime, the foreground of the picture. Ah, but the crime needs a background, the science fiction needs a foreground; it is so tempting to layer one upon the other. Since both genres use the same dynamic they can work in tandem, revealing the nature of the world at the same time as the nature of the crime is solved. Unfortunately, it's not that simple: the pace of world-building does not sit easily with the deliberate misdirection and secrecy needed to conceal a crime, the two strands develop at a different rate towards their separate climaxes, and it is a rare writer indeed who can unite those climaxes. More often, the dramatic denouement in which the method or perpetrator of the crime are revealed becomes detached from the emotional satisfaction with which the final piece in our picture of the world is slotted into place, so that one or other of the twin strands of the story is left dangling anticlimactically.

Sean Williams comes as close as any writer I could name to making the science fiction and the crime work in tandem, but even here the two strands come fatally adrift at the last. The result is an engaging and entertaining novel (Metal Fatigue won the Aurealis Award when it was first published in Australia in 1996, and Swift, a new Sheffield-based imprint, must be congratulated for their enterprise in making this book available in Britain), but it is nonetheless a flawed work.

As science fiction it tells us about Kennedy, a city state in what was once the USA. We are given sufficient hints to form a satisfying picture of the process of the fall, including economic collapse and civil war, but the real pleasure of the book lies in the detailed and convincing portrait of a city running down. Kennedy walled itself off from the rest of the world at a time when it was a technological and planning marvel, but during the years of isolation machines have started to fail, they are running out of things to cannibalise. All this is presented in precise and acute detail which is the most convincing thing about the book. Now the military might of the Re-United States is waiting at the gates, and Kennedy must come to terms with the end of its isolation, the loss of the unique status which has been effectively its entire raison díÍtre. Throughout the twentieth century Americaís relationship with the rest of the world has been characterised by alternate bouts of isolationism and military intervention, and Williams has set up the chance to examine that dichotomy. Unfortunately, he fumbles it, turning the isolationist debate within Kennedy into a straightforward good guy-bad guy conflict, while moral qualms about the militaristic nature of the revenant USA are briefly raised and quickly forgotten. Had he pursued this route, he might have turned the opening of Kennedyís gates into a far deeper, darker and more resonant event; but his background might also have started to conflict with the crime story going on in the foreground.

For, in the final days before Kennedy must rejoin the outside world, it is plagued by two parallel crime waves. Prominent people are being assassinated, and curious thefts are taking place, and in each case the sophisticated detection facilities that are still available to the police reveal nothing. Phil Roads, an old-timer with a secret, has been assigned to the burglary case but is getting nowhere, even though he was himself once the chief suspect since the thief bears a striking resemblance to the detective. At one point he has a run-in with someone who appears to be the assassin, someone who displays superhuman speed and strength, and, moreover, someone who is showing an inordinate interest in Roads. The two crime waves, therefore, are somehow linked, and the link would seem to be Roads himself. It is, of course, obvious from the start that the two crime waves are also connected with Kennedyís assimilation into the RUSA, but what the connection might be only starts to become clear after Roads is taken off the case. By the end of the novel he is battling alone, as the heroes of crime fiction so often are, against a convoluted political conspiracy of which the crime waves are only the surface manifestation.

Much goes into the mix. Roadsís own past is gradually revealed, simultaneously making him an ally and a worthy opponent of the superhuman assassin. At the same time contacts with a criminal mastermind provide clues as to the curious nature of the burglar, linking him both with the advanced technology of the RUSA and with the isolationist opposition within Kennedy. The contradictions inherent in this provide Williams with a superb opportunity for genuinely uniting the climaxes of the crime story and the science fiction, and as the political balance within Kennedy falls apart while Roads confronts assassin, burglar and criminal mastermind in a violent denouement, it seems for a moment as if he has actually pulled it off. But the dramatic action of this final confrontation takes over, a series of fights and chases and hairís-breadth escapes resolve the crime plot in suitably he-man fashion, but the political and science fictional undercurrent is somehow lost along the way, and the resolution of the second part of the plot has to be mopped up later in a way that makes the most interesting part of the novel suddenly seem an irrelevant anti-climax.

It may well be that the exigencies of crime fiction and science fiction mean that they can never satisfactorily co-exist, the demands of one plot are always likely to run counter to those of the other. What we are left with in the case of Metal Fatigue is well paced and entertaining, but it always feels like two stories that fight against each other as frequently as they complement each other. The science fiction story is well constructed and involving, until the demands of the crime story introduces technology that doesnít fully belong in the world we have so far been shown. The crime story is intriguing, a science fictional take on the locked room with a criminal able to walk undetected past every resource, human and electronic, available to the Kennedy police; but the revelation of the technological abilities of this world, necessary to the development of the science fiction story, gives away the howdunit secret of the crime plot earlier than it should be.

To an extent these are minor complaints. Williams writes well, in the main, with a welcome ability to create convincing and sympathetic characters, certainly he has a talent that deserves to be far more widely known outside Australia. Whatís more, as I said, he manages the marriage of science fiction and crime story at least as well as anyone else I have come across. Nevertheless, the conflict between the twin strands of the novel make it seem weaker than it should be.