Trash Lit: Things are weird around 'Mariposa'

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Editor's note: Guardian Executive Editor Tim Redmond has a bad 30-year addiction to mystery/crime/thriller books. He's decided that he may as well put this terrible habit to productive use by writing about these sometimes awful, sometimes entertaining and -- on rare occasion -- significant works of mass-market literature. Read his last installment here

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Mariposa
By Greg Bear
(Vanguard Press, 340 pages, $25.95)

By Tim Redmond

Good science fiction has a moral, of sorts. Frank Herbert wrote about the scary power of a charismatic leader. Robert Heinlein gave us the fun of free love and the lie of religion. William Gibson outlined the weird dangers of a digital society. My favorite sci-fi movie ever, RoboCop (1987), was all about the perils of privatizing public services.

Mariposa is part science fiction and part action thriller, and the mix works. I liked this book a lot – it’s got creepy tech advances -- digital storage devices that dissolve in your blood; tattoos that allow you to exchange information by skin-to-skin contact; monitoring chips that follow your every move; roller bots; a new drug that makes you a near-legendary fighter and totally fucks up your brain – as well as a message that’s eerily relevant.

Mariposa's opening is bizarre. The first chapter seduces you in a way that reminds me of Neuromancer. It’s the second decade of the 21st century. Oil prices have collapsed, destabilizing much of the Middle East. The United States is $30 trillion in debt and the president has had to accept IMF-style international receivership. “And it’s all our fault,” one character notes. “We do hate paying taxes, and we do love our government services.”

And the news media? “The dwindling national press – those journalists who still worked for networks or newspapers or the five prime news sites and could afford to travel rather than just sit in front of a screen and suck coffee and pontificate on what others saw and wrote – was as worn out and discouraged as the rest of the nation.”

Most of Texas is no longer under effective federal control. The FBI is in the process of being dismantled.The real, emerging power in the nation, and perhaps soon the world, is the head of a giant private security company that got rich off military contracts. In fact, he’s trying to prove how powerful he is by orchestrating the death sentence of a 15-year-old kid who has the misfortune to be the son of a federal agent.

Into this nightmare step a handful of still-loyal FBI operatives working directly for the dying president, who has been shot with a bullet laced with deadly engineered proteins. They’re trying to rescue a deep cover agent planted in the Talos Corporation -- someone who is trying to sneak the explosive data in the company’s files out of a tightly controlled compound. They're also out to save the 15-year-old’s life before the Texas corrections system, which pretty much reports to Talos, gets to stick him with a lethal injection.

Syntobe proteins that turn Coca Cola syrup into bombs. Desert car chase with hellfire missiles in drone planes. Robot snakes retrieving blood laced with digital downloads. Slightly lame FBI sex. Wicked drug-addled martial arts fighting. A hero who fights off powerful sedatives to take out six guys with a pole ax. I have to say: This one goes down as one of the best action books of the last year.