Volume 15, Number 02, Spring, 1997

Murder in the Solid State

By Wil McCarthy

(TOR, 1996, $22.95, 252 pp, hc).
Cover by Bob Eggleton.
Reviewed by Anders Monsen
May 1997

In my review of Steven Gould’s Wildside, I commented that the details of the technology were not as important as the character and story. This is quite the reverse in Wil McCarthy’s latest novel, Murder in the Solid State.

McCarthy is an engineer for Lockheed Martin, and his scientific side clearly dominates. The speculations are detailed and realistic, hewn from the Analog block of sf. Nanotechnology, which this novel uses as a centerpiece, is becoming one of the dominant sf themes of the 90s.

In McCarthy’s vision government, as in every other sphere of our lives, will find some way to use nanotechnology to intrude on our privacy and rights. Though it claims to do so in order to benefit society, the results are rarely as predicted.

Through the invention of molecular based tools the government has employed a device called the sniffer to track down all traces of gunpowder and illegal drugs. The resident party in power, the Grey Party, supported by a growing a class of older citizens in the early 21st century, has outlawed guns and drugs in the name of safety. By using the sniffer, they can find any hidden guns or banned drugs, and confiscate all such items.

The novel’s protagonist, a young maverick nanotechnology professor and inventor, David Sanger, finds himself in the middle of political intrigue and murder. Sanger is at odds with the inventor of the sniffer device, Otto Vandegroot, not really because of its political aspect, but because this person has tried to stifle invention and competition in the field. Instead, Sanger seeks to continually improve and expand what can be accomplished with nanotechnology, or as he prefers, ‘molecular fabrication.’

When Vandegroot is murdered at a convention, Sanger is blamed because the previous night they had engaged in an impromptu duel. Even after evidence specifically clears Sanger, he remains as suspect in the eyes of many people. When Sanger’s boss is murdered, and he’s almost is killed by uniformed assailants, Sanger flees. He is aided by his good but strange friend and attorney, Bowser Jones, by far the most interesting and likable character in the book. What follows is a long chase through both the real world and the virtual world, and the inevitable challenge to the Grey Party and its way of life.

Murder in the Solid State is a decent though somewhat confusing read. McCarthy has taken several ideas and blended them into a novel that reaches for but doesn’t quite succeed in a believable society ruled by nanotechnology and the state. The last words on nanotech control have yet to be written, but this is a chapter in the right direction.

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