Wil McCarthy
Murder in the Solid State (1996)
Reviewed: 1999-12-26

If I was asked to characterize this novel in a single sentence, I'd call it a lean mystery thriller set in the near future, carrying some political undertones. McCarthy extrapolates from a few current trends, and the result he presents is slightly less than pleasant.

A few years in the future the social climate in the USA feels oppressive. The Gray Party has sprung up, and although representing only a minority, its vocalness has gained it powerful influence and deeply affected society. Technology has played its part, too. The first applications of crude nanotech have started to emerge, and the undisputed czar of the field is "Big Otto" Vandegroot, although this is less due to creativity than a series of sweeping patents and the litigiousness of his lawyers. Big Otto's claim to fame is the invention of the "sniffer", a device able to detect even the smallest concentrations of a substance in the air. Courtesy of omnipresent sniffers, America has rid herself of guns, explosives, poisons, and drugs. Unsurprisingy, crime has adapted well and is at an all time high.

Privacy and progress have become roadkill on the highway to the Gray Party-induced vision of security. Sniffers are ubiquitous, and so are electronic door lock records accessible by the police. New inventions quickly find their way onto the list of RHT, Recognized Hazardous Technology, limiting them to sharply controlled laboratory use. Licenses are required for doing just about anything.

David Sanger is a young nanotech researcher. He's had some legal tangles with Big Otto in the past, and an incidental meeting of the two at a scientific conference turns ugly. Things get even worse when Big Otto is found murdered shortly afterwards, and David is the prime suspect. But this will not remain the last murder of the novel. Events start to take on a life of their own, and before long David is a fugitive, hiding from the police, trying to prove his innocence, revenge a friend, and bring down a national conspiracy. At his hands he holds the power to deeply affect the future.

Privacy, freedom, intellectual property. These are some of the concerns McCarthy touches. And if you aren't yet concerned, you should be. The presented future is only too plausible. Additional details like the virtual reality role playing game NEVERland add flesh to McCarthy's vision. Story and background are firmly limited to the USA, whether this should be considered focus or myopia I will not judge.

I'm not sure the capabilities of the sniffer are handled consistently. How are police and private guns distinguished? Shouldn't the sniffer be able to smell out individual people, making hiding next to impossible? McCarthy's prose is occasionally too flowery, giving the impression of an inexperienced writer. The title sounds clever but appears contrived in the context of the book.

I found myself unexpectedly affected by what originally promised to be a mere mystery novel. Another pearl: "Immature or inelegant technologies could so often prove worse than the more 'primitive' items they replaced", McCarthy has his protagonist ponder. To those of us in the tech business, these are words of wisdom.

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