Equations of Life is the first book in Simon Morden's Metrozone Trilogy. For those displeased with the industry-standard six-year wait between books, this is your time to celebrate: all three books were released between April and June of this year. God bless you, Mr. Morden.
The scruffy hero of Equations of Life is Samuil Petrovitch, a Russian refugee and post-graduate math (that's "maths", for our British readers) student. He lives in the sprawling London Metrozone: the last city in Europe. And "lives" is a bit of a relative term. Petrovitch's rule is to not get involved. He resides in anonymous housing, keeps his eyes down, has his daily post delivered to a mail drop and gets his email routed through secure servers in Tuvalu. His closest friend is the cook at his local greasy spoon.
Mr. Petrovitch is a survivor, and he keeps to himself.
From what we learn about the Metrozone, those aren't bad tactics. Something happened (in a nuclear sense) that wiped out most of Western Europe, with the fallout taking care of the rest. Japan is... gone. The USA is some sort of fundamentalist freehold, complete with a President for Life. The series takes place two decades after Armageddon, but what actually happened is never - to Mr. Morden's immense credit - fully explained. Equations of Life is about the here and now of Petrovitch, not an infomercial about how his world came to be.
Of course, a book about a hermit - even a urban post-Apocalyptic one - isn't that exciting. So after Mr. Morden sets up Petrovitch's slightly neurotic existence, he throws him in on the deep end. While wending his way through the crowded West End, Petrovitch sees a kidnapping in process. Despite his own code of conduct, he winds up getting involved. Petrovitch saves the girl. Happy ending, right?
Of course not. The "girl" turns out to be the daughter of Oshicora - the head of London's most powerful businessman (and criminal overlord). By saving her, Petrovitch has thrown himself into the center of a gang war. He's also offended the local police and a particularly gung-ho religious warrior. And Oshicora won't take "no" for an answer when it comes to offering ever-elaborate thank you's. All Petrovitch wants to do is be left alone - he's close to solving some sort of mathematical hoo-hah back at his lab, why can't people just let him get back to it?
Alas, people aren't mathematical equations (at least, most of them). As the cast of characters grows and grows, each throw a new stone into the increasingly-muddied pond of Petrovitch's life. Before too long, he's not just caught in the gang war, he's the cause of it. And before the end of the book, he's actively running it.
Equations of Life has all the trappings of granite-hard SF (down to the proper rocket scientist author and slightly poncy title), but none of the failings. This isn't part of the "literature of ideas" - this is the literature of incredibly likeable characters doing wild things in an amazing place. Mr. Morden knows his stuff - there's a degree of realism in both the science and the setting that adds immersive detail to the story. But that's the trick: it is about the story. The science feels right - and probably is right - but it's also a distant third to Petrovitch and his story.
Petrovitch is the key. The sweary, anti-social Russian is irritable and grumpy, but also absolutely lovable. Everyone has a friend like him, or, if not, you need one. He's competent, hilarious, inappropriately brave and an absolute delight to follow from page to page. His allies are no less charming - from the oversized battle-nun to the occasionally-competent police inspector, they all have larger than life personalities that seem barely contained by the book.
The only thing that threatens to steal the scene from Petrovitch is the book's vigorous plot, which zips about at a blistering pace. A kidnapping turns into a police action turns into a gang war turns into the New Machine Jihad turns into virtual worlds turns into the threat of Armageddon (again!). The battered Petrovitch careens from one action sequence to another, stopping for the occasional cup of tar-thick coffee. Equations of Life has the pace of Altered Carbon and the vision of Neuromancer, but it also has a uniquely self-deprecating sense of humor. Petrovitch is an unlikely hero and, despite his bravado, not a very good one. Still, as he shows, cutting sarcasm, good math skills and a host of unlikely friends can take you a long way.
You can read more about Equations of Life (including a free extract) on Simon Morden's blog.