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Friday, October 19, 2007

"Echelon" + "Empyre" by Josh Conviser

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Dubbed by the author as “spy-fi” (a cross between spy fiction and science fiction), Josh Conviser’sEchelon” and its sequel “Empyre” have been on my radar for a while now. After all, I have a soft spot for James Bond, I’ve really been getting into Jason Bourne lately, and I’m a huge fan of cyberpunk. So, based on the blurbs and other info that I’ve seen, Mr. Conviser’s books sounded like something I would really enjoy. Thus, in anticipation of “Empyre’sOctober 30, 2007 release, I purchased a copy of “Echelon” and decided to read the books back-to-back and review them collectively. While I’ll try my hardest to avoid spoiling anything, I am only human and I apologize in advance for any slipups ;)

Starting out with “Echeleon”, what we have is a future Earth—somewhere around 2100—that has enjoyed a century of peace thanks to Echelon, a clandestine organization that controls all data flow, preventing dangerous ideas from being fully realized. Additionally, Echelon steals technological concepts, combining them into new, even greater creations and then uses them for their own purposes such as the nanotechnology-like drones that bring our hero Ryan Laing back to life. Joining Laing, an Echelon field operative, are data-flow analyst Sarah Peters—doubles as a bassist in the screamo-poetry band Agamemnon’s Mitten, and weapons expert & super-hack Dave Madda, while the surrounding cast is rounded out by ‘cowboy seafarer’ Tex, Christopher Turing—the godfather of Echelon, and Echelon’s inspector general Jason Sachs. After introductions are made and the futuristic world established, the plot kicks in with Laing uncovering a conspiracy involving Turing. Without giving anything major away, Echelon basically goes offline, chaos ensues, and a large part of the book deals with Ryan, Sarah & Dave seeking out the Key which will make Echelon operational again. Woven into that are plenty of espionage-like moments, cathartic action sequences, a few double-crosses, blossoming love and some intriguing moral dilemmas...

If you didn’t know, Josh Conviser started out in Hollywood before writing his debut novel “Echelon” and is currently an executive consultant on HBO’s television series Rome, has a film being developed for Fox, and recently wrote the script for a modern day adaptation of Dante's Inferno set in Las Vegas. Understandably, Josh’s writing is infused with certain cinematic qualities, not all of them for the good however. On the plus side, Mr. Conviser really knows how to get the party started as the beginning of “Echelon” is quite gripping, the action throughout is over-the-top but fun, and the story moves along in a brisk, if not at times, haphazard manner. Where the book falters is with its clichéd characters and their weak development, a predictable romance between Ryan & Sarah, a tendency to overuse flashbacks that don’t fit seamlessly into the flow of the story, and the occasional moment of confusion where it seems like a piece is missing. My biggest disappointment however, was the lackluster spy elements. For a book that is described as ‘spy-fi”, the intrigue and mystery are sorely lacking. Basically, most of the big secrets are revealed way too early, the traitors are too obvious (aside from one surprise towards the end), and the conspiracy is oversimplified. Fortunately, the science fiction aspects in “Echelon” pick up a lot of the slack. While many of the concepts are familiar to anyone who follows any type of SF—nanotechnology, virtual reality & futuristic motorbikes are the most recognizable—Mr. Conviser does a good job adding his own spin on things and even introduces some entertaining ideas like interrogation methods using a form of sensory deprivation and an entire nation under quarantine where anyone can enter, but no one can leave. The one thing I didn’t like though was the origin of the Key, which seemed just a bit out of place with the rest of the novel. As a final analysis, I would say “Echelon” starts out with a bang, but because the writing & execution are weaker than the concept, the book ends on a whimper…literally.

Which brings me to its sequel “Empyre”. While I was a little frustrated with “Echelon”, the book did show a lot of potential and since it was Mr. Conviser’s first novel, I thought there was plenty of opportunity for improvement. Thankfully my feelings were more than justified as “Empyre” is a much stronger novel than its predecessor in almost every regard. Before getting into that though, let’s look at the story first. Five years have passed since the end of the first book. Echelon is no more and for the first time in a century, the world is free. But freedom comes at a hefty price—a world full of fear, anger, distrust & chaos. Hoping to fill the vacuum left by Echelon is EMPYRE, a terrorist organization featuring the collaborative efforts of the CIA, NSA, Defense Intelligence Agency, etc. whose primary goal is establishing America as the dominant world power. Of course there’s much more to EMPYRE than meets the eye as it stands at the center of a conspiracy even more frightening and disastrous than the one Echelon was a part of. Once again swept up into these world events are returning faces Ryan Laing, Sarah Peters and Dave Madda, as well as a couple of new ones, who discover that you can’t escape the past if you want to change the future…

As I mentioned before, “Empyre” is a highly superior book compared to “Echelon” and the first thing I noticed was how much more accomplished the writing was. The plotting was much tighter, the pacing more fluid, the characters better defined and more complex, especially Sarah who goes through some major changes both physically—augmented with enhanced perception, armored body shell, skin camouflage, a hawkeye, etc.—and emotionally. Mr. Conviser also fixed his flashback problems, exposition was improved, and the actual story was much more thought-provoking & satisfying dealing with such issues as singularity—“the acceleration of technological progress to the point where we can no longer predict our future based on the past”, terrorism, privacy issues, transhumanism—“the impact of technology on humanity”, Ryan & Sarah’s dynamic love/hate relationship, man vs. machine debates, bioweapons and various other relevant topics. In fact, “Empyre” seemed to take itself much more seriously than “Echelon” and in turn, was a much more intense and affecting read. Unfortunately, some of the same issues that plagued the first book are still shortcomings in “Empyre”. Intrigue remains a weak spot with Mr. Conviser once again showing his hand too early, while making it easy for the reader to figure out things ahead of time. There’s too much unnecessary banter, especially considering the seriousness of the book. New characters aren’t balanced out well—Mr. Conviser does a pretty good job of introducing newcomers like Frank Savakis and Zachary Taylor, but as the book progresses, there's hardly any growth. And the beginning is stronger than the rest of the novel though Josh does a much better job of closing out “Empyre” than he did with “Echelon”. On a personal note, I thought the little Da Vinci Code-like scenario with Ryan trying to crack a cipher was a bit cliche, and I felt the ‘shocking’ revelations regarding Alfred Krueger would have been much more effective if he had been established in the first book, but as a whole, none of the issues I had with “Empyre” were nearly as problematic as they were in “Echelon”.

For the most part, “Echelon” & “Empyre” live up to their promise of ‘spy-fi’ even if the books are skimpy on the spy side of things. Personally, I was reminded of the futuristic vision of Philip K. Dick and William Gibson; the violence, profanity, sex and overall edginess evoked Richard K. Morgan—in particular, his novel “Black Man/Thirteen” felt similar in tone to “Empyre”; theme-wise, I saw a lot of Joel Shepherd’s Cassandra Kresnov series and especially John Twelve Hawks (The Traveler, The Dark River)—heck there’s even a panopticon and free runners in “Empyre!”, and I would throw James Rollins’ Sigma Force novels into the mix because of their Hollywood-style action and more adventure-oriented spy elements. A pretty varied and impressive bunch, but not totally without merit I think :)

Overall, I enjoyed both of Josh Conviser’s novels. “Echelon”, while flawed, read quickly and was fun in a summer popcorn movie kind of way—lots of flash and bang, but lacking in spirit and ultimately forgettable. “Empyre” meanwhile, is a sophisticated, intelligent and provocative sci-fi thriller that will resonate much deeper with readers. Between the two, “Empyre” is easily the better novel, so if you’re having difficulties with “Echelon” I urge you to persevere because the effort is absolutely worth it when reading the sequel. On the other hand, if you liked “Echelon” then I need say no more since I’m pretty sure that you’ll love “Empyre”. For myself, I was completely stunned by how much of a leap forward Mr. Conviser made between the two books and I can’t wait to see what Josh does with his next one. Whether it’s a sequel to “Empyre”, which I’m confident there will be one, or a new project, I’m onboard one hundred percent…


Anonymous said...

I have a friend who has written a cyberpunk novel.

I thought it was really different from anything I had ever read. Action packed and violent.

I'm not sure that's my cup of tea, but it was fresh, I'll give you that.


Robert said...

Well, I wouldn't classify these books as strictly 'cyberpunk'. There are definitely elements of it, but there's lot of other stuff going on as well. It is pretty action-packed and violent though ;)

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