Paul Di Filippo Reviews Red Team Blues by Cory Doctorow
Red Team Blues, Cory Doctorow (Tor 978-1250865847, hardcover, 224pp, $27.99) April 2023
I can’t possibly say enough good things about Cory Doctorow’s new novel. It has all the great qualities and features that one expects from a Doctorow tale, but any extra praise it accrues is due to what it does differently from past items in his canon. It shows the writer deliberately moving into fresh territory which—the god of critics should strike me down for using such a curse word—seems more “mature” than past efforts. I’m not a big fan of “maturity,” feeling as many people do that “adulting” all too often consists of boring, hypocritical busywork. (And as Sturgeon postulated in “Maturity,” we’ve probably never yet seen a human who exhibits what that word really could mean.) And since the opposite of “mature” is “juvenile,” does that mean I’m casting all of Doctorow’s previous works with their innovative complexity and brio as kid’s stuff? Why don’t we just say that the new book represents a deepening or heightening of vision, of emotion, and of worldview? And after all, is this not a natural human and writerly progression, for anyone not stuck at some earlier plateau? The wunderkind who startled us with “Craphound” nearly 20 years ago is now into his fifties. Why would he not exhibit growth?
The first thing to know is that this book is almost not SF by most hardcore definitions. It takes place about 36 hours into the future, involving no new technologies or sociopolitical trends. It might be best seen as a high-tech thriller in a league with Neal Stephenson’s great Reamde, a book whose flavors are somewhat echoed here. But if your SF umbrella is large enough, it will surely shelter such a consanguineous narrative.
Our hero is the 67-year-old “forensic accountant” named Martin “Marty” Hench. He also narrates his own tale, and it’s his affable, distinctive voice, issuing from a fully-fleshed-out fellow, that captivates the reader and makes the novel eminently compelling and a rocketing read.
Given his age, Marty has a long backstory, which we sense implicitly, and which Doctorow doles out judiciously as needed. But coming upon Marty in media res all we need to know is that he is an expert in tracking money: legal, illegal, digital, or cash. He is part of the “red team” fraternity of investigators who are always on the attack for their clients, winkling out hidden assets.
(He is also a confirmed bachelor, leading an RV lifestyle in his converted bus, and getting a little weary of it all. Maybe it’s time to think about retiring…?)
Now an old friend is tapping Marty for his skills. Billionaire Danny Lazer has set up a new cryptocurrency, Trustlesscoin, which bids fair to become the new global standard. However, he’s lost the only copy of the digital keys to the whole system, and whoever has them can subvert everything. Marty’s mission is to find the crooks and get the keys back. The potential reward for Marty: three hundred million dollars.
The subsequent search reveals Doctorow at his absolute best in imbuing abstruse topics with real-world heft. The trail is complicated and non-obvious, and it leads Marty to a scene of carnage, and some success. All seems well. Except that the stymied bad guys now focus on Marty as the cause of all their grief, and numerous assassins start gunning for him. (The first attempt is by exploding electric car battery, an absolutely pitch-perfect twenty-first-century gimmick.) The rest of the book is Marty on the run, trying to stay alive. At first he goes all “blue team,” taking defensive positions. But soon he realizes that his skills lie, as they always have, in red team aggressions, and he acts to turn the tables on the bad guys, who have severely underestimated our hero.
Except here’s where some of Doctorow’s new wisdom comes into play. Marty is besieged and almost helpless without the aid of friends, acquaintances, and even strangers. He is no go-it-alone superman, but rather an individual tied into a network of humanity, relying on the goodness and altruism of his fellows for survival.
Three of those vital people are lovingly portrayed women. Sethuramani Balakrishnan, Danny Lazer’s young wife; Ruth Schwartzburg, a former co-worker, and soon to become a romantic interest in Marty’s life; and Wilma “Raza” Razamandimby, a fellow economics whiz. Marty’s elliptical orbits about these three women add a rich texture to the thriller.
But here’s something else you’ll notice: Doctorow gives every single character—whether it’s an Uber driver who’s present for one page, or some homeless people who are consequential for several chapters—a true authenticity and uniqueness. The message in such narrative emphases is that “every person counts; every person has a story; no one must be neglected.” That’s hard-won wisdom indeed, which is often unobtainable or neglected by the ego-driven young.
Doctorow wraps up Marty’s troubles in a convincing, not glib manner. And then he takes several chapters to craft a coda. Marty is not the same fellow who went into this caper. He’s learned more about himself and the world, and he intends to reify those lessons. Of course, having three hundred million dollars helps! Doctorow is not all down-to-earth nuts and berries. We can have a little fantasy fun, imagining how such a fortune could be deployed.
This coda has the circular patterning of all great fiction. Things that were left hanging are resolved, tied off in not overly neat but truly satisfying packages. The final paragraphs are heartwarming, looking backwards as well as forwards.
John D. MacDonald, one of my favorite writers, is a little undervalued today. But I still consider it a great tribute to say that Red Team Blues has all the heart and humanity of the best of MacDonald’s work, along with that distinctive twenty-first-century Doctorow vibe.
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