Wednesday, October 15, 2014

TekWar by William Shatner

The Rockford Files meets The Jetsons
William Shatner’s science fiction novel TekWar, originally published in 1989, is the first in a series of nine Tek books. It also gave rise to a comic book series, a video game, and a television series. Much of this success, of course, is due to its author’s preexisting fame. It’s easy to take pot shots at actors moonlighting as novelists, but as a fan of the genre I approached this book with every intention of giving Shatner a fair shake. Ultimately, however, even my middling expectations were disappointed.

Jake Cardigan is a former cop who was sentenced to 15 years in suspended animation for dealing in a drug known as Tek. Tek is distributed in the form of computer chips which, when coupled with an apparatus that’s wired to the brain, conjure up tailor-made hallucinations in the mind of the user, somewhat like the virtual-reality drug that Ralph Fiennes peddles in the 1985 movie Strange Days. In the year 2120, after four years of incarceration, Cardigan is awoken from his deep sleep and released from prison, though he’s not quite sure why or to whom he owes his good fortune. This is just one of the mysteries that faces Cardigan as, stripped of his badge, he goes to work for a private detective agency. He soon finds that, no matter how hard he tries to avoid it, he just can’t keep himself from getting drawn into the criminal world of Tek.

The idea of a hard-boiled detective story set in the future is nothing new, of course. Pulp fiction writers have been making Sam-Spade-in-space stories since the days of Dashiell Hammett. Shatner’s vision of the future is remarkably antiquated, like something out of a ‘40s or ‘50s pulp magazine. His efforts at sci-fi speculation don’t stretch much beyond adding prefixes like plas-, space-, and vid- to the front of preexisting nouns. Many common objects are made of lucite, and there are robots everywhere. Back in 1989, mobile phones and the internet were still in their infancy, but given that Star Trek foreshadowed such things, Shatner could have stretched his imagination a bit. Instead, the primary mode of communication is faxing, and everyone has an alcove in their home devoted to a videophone. All this matters little, however, because the novel is not really concerned with the future anyway. It’s just a mediocre detective story dressed up in futuristic trappings.

Not surprisingly, TekWar can’t compare with the science fiction masterpieces of authors like Frank Herbert or Phillip K. Dick, but it could probably hold its own against 90% of what passes for fiction at your typical airport newsstand if it didn’t drag out so long. I thought I was getting a fun piece of pulpy escapism, but what I got was a chore to read. In each chapter, a new character is introduced who provides Cardigan with a little piece of the puzzle. With the exception of name, race, and gender, however, there’s little to distinguish any of these people or androids from one another, so there’s little reason to care about any of them. What’s worse, Cardigan doesn’t really use any detective reasoning to solve the mystery, he simply follows the trail of bread crumbs left for him by this series of nondescript characters until the solution falls into his lap and the plot finally fizzles to a halt.

TekWar isn’t terrible, but at best it’s a marginally competent attempt at science fiction. Were it not for Shatner’s name on the cover, it would have quietly faded into the obscurity it deserves.

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