The Bright Spot, by Robert Sydney

Reviewed by Lisa Goldstein, Locus, September 2005

A brief Internet search reveals that Robert Sydney is also Dennis Danvers, and that he doesn't mind this fact being known. (This is important; as someone who became a Pseudonym myself, I'm well aware of the protocols of the thing.) Under his own name Danvers has written a number of books, including a truly terrific novel called The Watch, in which Peter Kropotkin is brought forward into the present day. The Watch got less attention than it deserved, perhaps in part because readers in the US are not as familiar with 19th-century Russian anarchists as they should be, and so Danvers is now forced to sneak into bookstores in the literary equivalent of a low-brimmed hat and a pair of sunglasses.

According to Danvers, Kropotkin was generous and kind, a nice guy. Nicholas Bainbridge, the narrator of The Bright Spot, is... not so nice. For one thing, he neglects to tell his girlfriend Luella that his name is not really Nicholas Bainbridge. For another, he's sort of a wise guy, with the kind of patter you'd find in a good detective novel. "Don't get smart with me," a guard says. "Don't worry," Nick says. "I wouldn't want you to fall behind."

Nicholas and Luella meet while acting in a virtual. A short while later they are hired to make another, shadier-sounding virtual; they are asked to impersonate a man named James Dumfries and his girlfriend, in a scheme meant to make the real Dumfries think he has traveled through time to observe his younger self. Dumfries breaks the fourth wall to warn Nick about various things, and soon afterward an old friend of Dumfries's is murdered.

As Nick searches for answers, he discovers that nothing is as it appears to be. No one has ever heard of Dumfries's girlfriend, for example, and he can't find the man who hired him and Luella in the first place.

He learns that Dumfries invented workware, a method for plugging people into various kinds of jobs, which they are able to do obediently for 12 hours without remembering or feeling anything. Dumfries is orchestrating something from behind the scenes — and he has the ability to plug into any group of workers on 'ware, anywhere in the world. He is also, after all these years, somewhat insane.

In The Bright Spot, Danvers/Sydney has written another truly terrific novel. Nick and Luella make an engaging couple; they could be updated versions of Nick and Nora Charles, complete with cute dog. Their friends are sympathetic, and the writing is funny as hell. ("My place was about the size of this sentence. Furnished.")

If there's a problem, it's that the future never seems futuristic enough. Nick's world has virtual reality, cloning, and tiny spy drones, and yet none of this seems to affect him or his friends. When he needs to know more about Dumfries, instead of diving into a virtual web he asks a college kid neighbor.

The Watch ended with Kropotkin having to make a wrenching decision, one of those ethical dilemmas where either choice could be right, or wrong. Nick has to make a similarly difficult decision, but by this time he too has become a nice guy, and the fate of the planet couldn't be in better hands.

Reviews don't usually discuss a book's editor, but I wanted to draw attention to a heartening development: the fact that editor Juliet Ulman seems to be rescuing Bantam Spectra single-handedly from its spectacular crash of about a decade ago. She's managed to do this by (surprise!) buying good books, from people whose writing, like Danvers's, is funny and inventive and exciting: Mark Budz, Tim Pratt, Eliot Fintushel, to name a few. You might try picking up a Spectra imprint; they're paperbacks, so they won't even set you back that much.

First published in Locus Magazine

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