Protagonists with genius-level intelligence are rife in science fiction, which presents authors with a big hurdle: How do you make your hero dumb enough to actually mess things up, and thus have a plot? In these cases, it’s become standard practice to take the easy way out by making super-smart characters into emotional idiots. Equations Of Life, the debut novel of British writer Simon Morden, chooses not to mess with that formula. Unfortunately—and as its title would imply—the book doesn’t mess with any other science-fiction formulae, either.

In a post-apocalyptic near-future scarred by a limited nuclear exchange—one, however, in which Japan has fallen into the sea, tragically chilling in light of recent events—Samuil Petrovitch is a refugee living in the London Metrozone. Why it’s called the Metrozone, other than to make it seem nearly futuristic, is never determined; in fact, besides a few gangsters and the fact that Hyde Park is now an open graveyard, London is doing remarkably well a mere 20 years after being almost destroyed. Technology has advanced considerably, even on the street level, which is why Petrovitch, a Russian-born teenage prodigy and autodidact, has left behind a shady past in his homeland in favor of a new life as a Metrozone physicist. After impulsively saving the life of the daughter of a yakuza head, Petrovitch is slowly drawn into a scheme to recreate the lost Japan as a virtual-reality world, as well as a conspiracy called the New Machine Jihad that’s about as subtly handled as it sounds.


Morden’s strength is his surging pace and taste for crisp dialogue—and to his credit, he even manages to make a sympathetic character out of the wisecracking, lopsidedly honorable Petrovitch (aided, sort of, by a cheap physical defect that becomes monstrously implausible by the book’s end). Everyone else, though, is a cartoon character, right down to the ugly American and the ass-kicking nun. If Morden were shooting for pure, hardboiled pulp, that would be one thing, but he’s also reaching for some deeper points about loss, responsibility, and the role of technology—elements far better juggled by writers like Richard K. Morgan. Still, Equations Of Life is a rollicking read, even it does implicitly beg for a brainy audience and a brainless one at the same time.