by Eliot Peper
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
I received a free e-book of this title, not from NetGalley this time, and not directly from the author, but from a friend of his that I follow on Twitter. I promised I would read it as soon as I could (mainly because it is a 2016 title, thus eligible for a 2017 Hugo), and that I would write an honest review. Peper released another novel this year that has received good reviews, and I may get to it before Hugo nomination deadline as well.
Cumulus is set at least thirty years in the future, maybe a bit more. One character is a former NBA star who had retired that long ago. The setting is San Francisco, Oakland and environs. Current social and economic problems, primarily income inequality, has transformed the world into Green Zones of the wealthy, Fringe zones of the dwindling middle class, and Slums (yes, it's capitalized) of the poor and disenfranchised. Cumulus itself is a high-tech company best described as Google on steroids. Founded twenty years prior to the main action, it has slowly acquired many other tech companies through aggressive financial deals, even blackmail in a few instances. Nearly every computer, phone, or other internet-connected device runs on Cumulus software, with stealth technology which allows the recording of all phone conversations, tracking of all email traffic, etc. Other companies owned by Cumulus include Fleet (think Uber, but with self-driving cars) and Security, which provides monitoring and investigative services in the Green Zones. City services, including police, are minimal.
Some interesting concepts concerning where our society may be heading, yet I have to deduct points for execution. It's fairly short by today's novel standards, which is a weakness because there should have been more background information on Cumulus and its founder, Huian Li, and other character development is sparse. I'll have to limit other criticisms to avoid spoiling the plot, but a major problem is with Graham Chandler, an operative for Cumulus' shady dealings. He's ex-CIA, a highly trained agent, and yet also extremely paranoid. He may not be as competent as he thinks he is, since he fails to notice someone following him, and is undone by a serendipitous twist of fate, an outdated (even today) analog technology. He is a detestable character, but so one-note it's hard to take him seriously, plus his final action is completely out of character. Huian may not be as blood-thirsty as Chandler, but still as culpable for the crimes her ambition leads to.
While I was disappointed with a few aspects, the saving grace is that it is fast-paced, with enough action to satisfy most readers. At times it came close to cyberpunk, almost instant data retrieval, but with HUD or contact lens screens, not computer implants, but that was a likely development if Cumulus was allowed to expand unchecked. I wish it had more exposition to fill in the blanks, but it was good enough to finish, and it did keep me thinking about how it was possible for the world to get to that point, and why we should make sure the real world doesn't. In other instances of dissatisfaction with a book I have not had a desire to follow-up with the same author, but that is not the case here. Peper is young and this is just his fourth novel in the past two years, and the descriptions (and ratings) of his other work is promising. I have his other current book on a wish list, and I'll let you know when and if I read it. If you have a Kindle, that price for this book is very reasonable, but it's not available for Nook, paperback or audible are the other options.
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