Matthew Jarpe: Radio Freefall

rfMatthew Jarpe’s debut novel, Radio Freefall, is good hard science fiction about good hard rock and roll.

Fast-forward Earth a couple decades. A mysterious older musician known only as Aqualung has emerged from the desert with not much more than the clothes on his back and a custom painted vintage 1988 Les Paul Classic guitar. He takes up with a fledgling Las Vegas instrumental rhythm and blues band called Let My People Go. Under his babysitting and enigmatic tutelage they become one of the world’s hottest rock and roll groups, billing themselves as The Snake Vendors.

With the addition of Aqualung’s perfect, gravely voice, The Snake Vendors become the center of an increasingly global spotlight. Aqualung keeps the younger members of the band in working order, continually pumping them full of antags to counteract the copious amounts of drugs they take, though nothing can combat the worst they inflict upon themselves, such as shooting “witch” — a short-term recreational viral infection that causes shakes and visions — or earning sentences to Singapore prisons through violence and mayhem. Aqualung, remembering his own youthful days of heroin use and near-misses on his motorcycle, doesn’t hold it against them. It seems in rock and roll, creativity and self-destruction forever walk hand in hand.

The Snake Vendors tour the world. This is relatively easily accomplished, as the nations of Earth fold one by one into a single global entity under pressure from the powerful WebCense Corporation and its driving force, Walter Cheeseman. Only Cheeseman’s ex-friend and ex-employee, Quin Taber, has the insight and the determination to fight Cheeseman’s insidious takeover of the planet. Only Taber knows that the entity behind Cheeseman’s power is an intelligent computer virus called the Digital Carnivore, a rogue file-sharing daemon. Cheeseman doesn’t understand the artificial intelligence might have its own agenda, not necessarily parallel or sympathetic to his own. But Quin Taber knows. Taber also knows Aqualung is the key to discovering exactly what the Digital Carnivore’s agenda might be. He who controls the Digital Carnivore controls the world, and Taber and Cheeseman are engaged in a race to the finish.

Early on, I was afraid Radio Freefall was going to lose me. It took me a while to get into the groove of a hard-edged world of mosh pits, computer-enhanced crowd control, corporate-mafia sponsorship and techno-geek heroes. Aqualung begins as a prickly, almost overbearing character, though I’m sure some of the old-school “dudes” out there will find him a loveable, mentor-like figure, perhaps a figure they themselves would like to be. Imagine a middle-aged techno geek daydreaming about the rock star he always felt he cold have become, way back since the days he used to jam in his mama’s basement somewhere in suburban America. That dream-self would be the ultra-cool, ever-suave, best-musician-on-the-planet, vintage guitar-strumming, motorbike-riding, uber-charismatic Aqualung. Taber, the computer geek with the social anxieties and the unresolved mother-issues and best friend who lives in his head was far easier for me to like from the start.

Happily, Radio Freefall picks up a good head of steam, boiling quickly into an excellent stew of corporate takeover, political intrigue and ultimately, interplanetary war (if the Moon can be termed a planet for purposes of exposition). WithRadio Freefall, I’m reminded most of the novels of Elmore Leonard, especially in the intuitive, dialog-driven action and periodically insightful male/female dynamics. There are some subtle, interesting interpersonal developments between Taber and his girlfriend; between Cheeseman and the woman who would be his fiancé; between Aqualung and his space-politico ladyfriend; even between Taber and his virtual daughter, the artificial intelligence known only as Molly. Molly is the most sympathetic character, hands down, though main protagonists Taber and Aqualung both won me over by the end. The rest of The Snake Vendors never did, I’m afraid: bunch of whiny kids. I hope that doesn’t mean I’m getting old.

. . .Nah. Never too old for good rock and roll.

(Tor, 2007)

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