Bear Head by Adrian Tchaikovsky (book review).

In Adrian Tchaikovsky’s ‘Dogs Of War’ we were introduced to the world of bioforms, bio-enhanced intelligent animals developed to fight and to always obey. Things had changed by the end of that novel and now two of those characters, huge bear Honey and distributed intelligence Bees, are back in ‘Bear Head’.

This time the action is split between Earth and Mars. On Earth, politicians and the media are still vacillating between animal rights and their fear of these advanced creatures, while secret experiments are adapting the technology that formerly shackled these creatures for use in human employees. The powerful political figure Warner S. Thompson gathers followers in his wake, using his power and influence to develop this technology further and secure his grip on his followers.

Meanwhile on Mars, a grand construction project is underway, a city of the future built by modified humans and bioforms. Labourer Jimmy finds himself with a downloaded personality rattling round inside his brain and the two worlds start to come together. There’s a mixture of high-tech concepts, cyberpunk hacking, politics and conspiracies all mixed together in a high-stakes battle to decide the future of artificial intelligence, bio-enhancements and freedom of choice.

There’s a good mixture of voices telling the story, too. Honey the highly educated bear who has been involved in the arguments and struggles for freedom for decades. Jimmy the reluctant labourer who never gives much thought to anything but finds himself in the centre of the storm. Carole, the loyal PA to Warner S. Thompson, whose devotion is unwavering and who struggles with her own questions of right and wrong and freedom of choice. The three different viewpoints round out our understanding of the issues and how they affect the various bioforms, distributed intelligences and unswervingly loyal employees.

There’s a continual ratcheting of the tension throughout the novel, a feeling that surely Thompson can’t get away with what he’s doing and that he must get his comeuppance soon. The situation gets more desperate for Honey and more traumatic for Carole with each chapter. Jimmy find things getting increasingly out of control as he dodges creditors, Rufus the sheriff on Mars, the Administration and various others unsavoury characters.

Adrian Tchaikovsky has done another marvellous job of humanising his bioform characters: bears, dogs and other animals with varying amounts of modifications and intelligence. Their attitudes and thought-processes are extrapolated in thoughtful and interesting ways and we are even offered an insight into the way that a distributed intelligence would work. ‘Bear Head’ really helps you get inside the head of a bear and provides a thrilling and fun sequel to ‘Dogs Of War’ that expands the universe in new and profound directions.

Gareth D Jones

December 2020

(pub: Head of Zeus, 2021. 400 page hardback. Price: £18.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-80024-154-1)

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