Alan Dean Foster, The Mocking Program (Warner Books, 2002)

Welcome to the future. Welcome to the Montezuma Strip, a fever-hot, dangerous borderland that stretches from Baja to the Gulf. It's a Spanglish place where anything is possible, no matter how dangerous, treacherous, or illegal. It's a rough, fantastic, magical place where technology and culture have both run wild, giving birth to a whole new culture incorporating the best -- and worst -- from America and Mexico. It's the sort of place where it's hard to be a good guy.

Meet Angel Cardenas, Inspector for the Namerican Federal Police. After thirty years, he thought he'd seen it all, thought he'd become too used to the corruption and bodies and morbidly inventive things one person could do to another. But that was before a body turned up in the gutter, sans organs. When some preliminary investigations turn up not one, but two valid identities for the corpse du jour, the hunt is on for the truth. Wayne Brummel of Greater Harlington? Or George Anderson, of Olmec? What's real and what's not?

Angel's determined to get to the bottom of things, especially when an attempt to notify the family of the deceased turnes sour. Before he knows it, Katla and Surtsey Anderson, the daughter and wife of George Anderson, have gone missing, leaving a booby-trapped house in their wake. With his partner thus put out of action by an untimely explosion, Angel is on his own, with a few questions to put to the residents of the Strip.

Who was George Anderson/Wayne Brummel, and what was he hiding? What had the man so scared he'd rig his own house to explode? Where are Katla and Surtsey Anderson, and why are so many people after a twelve year old girl? What makes Katla so special? How does this all tie in to the notorious (and notoriously absent) Cleator Mockerkin, a man in charge of a widespread criminal organization?

Angel's search will take him into the dives and clubs of the Strip, through privileged neighborhoods and gang-ridden streets, from Sanjuana to the Bonezone. Answers will produce more questions, and the trail will lead further south. There, in the depths of the rainforest, in a country ruled entirely by intelligent (and well-armed) simians, Angel and his partner will discover just what makes Katla Anderson so valuable. And then the race to stop the Mocker from recapturing Katla will truly begin in earnest. From secret underwater bases to the Big Box (like the Internet, but squared a few times), Angel will put his life on the line to give Katla the chance for a happy, safe life.

The Mocking Program is cyberpunk for the new century, filled with the familiar turned exotic, and the exotic turned dangerous. Foster has imagined a world not too far removed from our own, a logical evolution given enough time and cultural syncretism. The world of Angel Cardenas is fascinating and deadly, like a cobra about to strike. Like the noir detective stories of old, it's a good man against a bad world, with innocent lives on the line and enemies at every turn. Can good intentions survive a hostile environment for very long, or will Angel finally be beaten down and that last bit of hope stomped out?

One thing that really sets this book apart is the language. Foster, like only a few others, has managed to go beyond the usual words, to incorporate a whole new universe of "spang" (Spanglish, or Spanish-English slang), not just in the dialogue but in the narrative itself. Thus, we're treated to atmospheric passages, such as:

"The ganglet of ninlocos arrived before his food did. They swaggered in past the protesting door, the lanky chieflado in the lead spazzing it out with a spinner whose ident was torqued to reflect instead of inform. Behind the chingaroon ambulated a group of negs and poses, though which was who and who was witch was hard to say at first glance. Hyaki looked over his shoulder, grunted a kata, and wished their food would hurry up and emerge from hibernation in the kitchen."

To translate and summarize: A gang of crazyboys walked in, their leader confusing the security system with an adjusted identity chip. Behind the leader walked a group of boys and girls, though the difference was hard to tell. Hyaki looked over his shoulder, and wished the food would hurry up.

Okay, so maybe translating it takes away the magic. And to be honest, not all paragraphs are as heavily laden with such special terms. But Foster manages to mix the familiar and the unfamiliar in such a way that it's fairly easily to determine what a word should, could, or might mean. In the process, he creates something new and attractively alien.

Alan Dean Foster's always been a little hit and miss for me. I've enjoyed a lot of his books, while others fall flat on their faces. The Mocking Program, however, may be his best book to date, of the ones I've encountered. The plot is sharp and contains enough twists to keep readers on their toes, and the language is a genuine treat, worth studying on its own. I have no trouble recommending this book. It's not fantasy; I can't deny that it's unrepentantly science fiction. But it's almost mythic in its cultural extrapolation and linguistic experimentation. Foster is one of those authors who can transition from fantasy to science fiction and back again with remarkable ease; his Pip and Flinx and Spellsinger series are examples of his skill in either field. If you want to try something that blends the old and the new, give this one a try.

[Michael M. Jones]

Alan Dean Foster's Web site is www.alandeanfoster.com.