In many ways the shadow of the Matrix movies hangs over Hammerjack like a great luminescent shroud. The Matrix movies were themselves the product of literary inspiration from Cyberpunk writers and there’s certainly no shortage of those which might have and likely did influence Marc D. Giller’s writing but there is also something inescapable in the writing, in that vision of hackers, agents, emerging machine intelligences, the stylized gritty streets of an urban dystopia and a war between factions over the future of mankind that pulses with a Wachowski Brothers beat.
In a time when Science Fiction writers are rushing to embrace nanotech and quantum theory, Hammerjack is unapologetically retro with an old fashioned hacking culture and a corporate takeover of the world complete even with Yakuza. These are the sorts of elements that usually show up in downmarket Science Fiction novels that regurgitate the same material that was being written up in the 80’s, but Hammerjack’s retro orientation embraces a fast paced storyline that doesn’t really break new ground but tells it well all the same.
While Hammerjack’s vision of a corporate controlled world seems a little dated piece of cyberpunk history, Marc D. Giller makes up for it with smooth storytelling and characters that may not be compelling but are well written and entertaining. Marc D. Giller’s debut with Hammerjack is not the revolutionary novel its blurbs would have you believe, but it is something almost as worthwhile– a competent work that is both engrossing and entertaining.Giller’s cinematic writing quickly draws entire scenes as easily as the snap of a camera and Giller’s characters are effortlessly rendered and spring easily to life on the page. Marc Giller is also that rarity– a male writer whose female characters seem better formed and more lifelike than his male characters.
Cray Alden, the hero of Hammerjack is a former hammerjack and current spook who helps the world’s corporate authorities hunt down hammerjacks. Hammerjack is Gillerspeak for hacker and in a corporate ruled world with no civil rights, its equivalents of the MPAA and RIAA and BSA get to mete out the kinds of ruthless penalties that modern corporate bosses can only dream of including torture, death and imprisonment in gulags. Driven by guilt and a desire for survival, Cray Alden works with agents on behalf of his boss, Phao Yin, a mid ranking member of the Collective– the world’s corporate rulers. When Cray hunts down Zoe, a runner carrying flash– illegal data imprinted as genetic information in the body– and sees her die, a series of events begin to unfold that lead to Cray’s transformation.
Hammerjack begins with a rogue supercomputer and ends with another rogue supercomputer. In between the first half and strongest section of the novel focuses on Cray Alden trying to operate in an environment where he cannot trust anyone, manipulated by Phao Yin, by the Collective, the mysterious hacker known only as Heretic and by the Anti-Machine Intelligence terrorists of the Inru. We are introduced to Avalon, a version of The Matrix’s Trinity– if Trinity was actually cool and a villain. We are taken to the underground headquarters of the leadership of the Collective embodied in a dreamspace in the Axis (the Giller version of The Matrix, Cyberspace, etc…) and directed to investigate Lyssa, an artificial intelligence with a female persona who had wiped out the population of an entire research building at “The Works”.
The second half is told from the perspective of Lea Prism, revealed to be the Heretic, a former top Inru Hammerjack who on realizing that the Inru’s plans for humanity were equally focused on enslaving humanity as The Collective, went to work for herself trying to hold back both sides. It also focuses on Cray Alden’s transformation into a higher being thanks to the flash passed on to him from Zoe in her dying moments. This is also the distinctly weaker half of the novel. In part this is because of the Matrix problem that haunted the later Matrix movies too. Keanu Reeves as Neo was plausible as an ordinary man caught in an extraordinary situation, but silly as the savior of mankind. Cray Alden was plausible enough as a spook working for a master he didn’t really like and later on the run from– but simply not plausible in his evolution to a higher state of being.
Marc D. Giller can produce appealing female characters, but where with Avalon and Lyssa he demonstrates that he can produce darker and more troubled female character; Lea Prism never fits her biography as a former terrorist, traitor and renegade hacker. Instead she quickly becomes a conventional female heroine who plays second fiddle to the hero, falls in love with him instantly and is prepared to die for him at a moment’s notice and stumbles in terror where he is certain, nearly dies for refusing his side and finally achieves meaning by reuniting with the hero. Lea Prism isn’t badly written but Marc Giller clearly refused to take the risk that anyone might dislike Lea Prism. He wants her to be a cool character but isn’t prepared to take the risks involved in writing a genuinely cool character. The book’s jacket blurb describes Lea as an “ass-kicking female character”, she is hardly that. Thought it might plausibly apply to Avalon.
Essentially Hammerjack is far more plausible when it races along the classic paths of betrayal and mysterious conspiracies in the corporate world and the gritty alternately dark and neon lit alleys and streets of a neglected dystopian New York City overshadowed by massive steel and glass towers and filled with misery, corruption and crime. When Giller dips his toe into the bigger questions of the nature of humanity and intelligence and when he attempts to draw a romance and depict Cray’s ascension– he falls woefully short.
Hammerjack could have used more backstory fleshing out the Consolidation and the battles against it. It could have also used a good deal more risk taking. Giller is a good writer, but Hammerjack follows so many cyberpunk cliches that if Giller hadn’t been a good writer capable of smoothly sketching out characters and scenes; the results would have been laughable. Nevertheless it is a strong debut novel and well worth reading.