Bending the western genre beyond almost all recognition with a sci-fi coat of paint, Red Noise is the best cowboy novel to see print in years.
Engineer-turned-author John P. Murphy may have just cracked the code on how to make cowboys in space anything other than ridiculous. While it may substitute a saddle-back horse for a spaceship and dust-filled 19th century Americana for a pitstop out amongst the stars, Red Noise is immediately flagged as the latest in a line of expectation-subverting westerns – in case you missed all of the other clues, the sprawling-yet-claustrophobic Station 35 is formally named after John Wayne himself.
When we first meet our protagonist, a hardened ex-military veteran whose body is riddled with cybernetic augmentations, she is making her way towards the nearest station which her dwindling fuel reserves can reach in order sell the ore she has spent months mining in solitude.
Referred to as ‘Jane’, short for Jane Doe, ‘Mickey’, short for Mickey Mouse, and more often than not as simply ‘the Miner’, we never learn a whole lot about this terrifyingly-cold warrior, which is exactly the way she prefers things. What we do learn an awful lot about, however, are the myriad of colourful characters who plague and enrich her life within the confines of Cpt John Wayne Koganusan Station, grandiosely named that instead of simply ‘cowboy fortress’. Ranging from a drunken, washed-up stationmaster to a three-way gang war for supremacy to all of the unfortunates caught up in the whirlwind of violence, Murphy has crafted a cast of characters who each bring something different to the table. Be it Takata’s sage observations, Ditz’s melancholy reflections, Feeney’s manic obsessions, Angelica’s string-pulling, or McMasterson’s moustache-twirling scheming, there is quite literally never a dull moment.
From the second our protagonist first steps foot on Station 35 she is getting the lay of the land, and it isn’t long before she realises that the whole damn place is rotten to the core, a core that needs to be excised with an expertly-wielded samurai sword. The parallels to works by such icons as Kurosawa are blatant, and we follow the Miner as she plays each of the three sides against each other while occasionally publicly switching sides herself. What ensues is an often-frenetic and sometimes-chaotic cacophony of violence which metaphorically splits the station in half, and almost manages it literally when the mythological heir-apparent Nuke struts back onto his turf in the wake of his sister’s bloodied wedding ceremony.
The book is not without its flaws, however. For every few minor character interactions which flesh out the world around us, there is one which breaks the pace of the narrative. While the story is well-crafted and keeps the reader on the edge of their seat, somewhere around the middle it starts to become middling before the tension and stakes return as it races into the final third. The book’s ending, though favourable, is a little bit too rushed to be as satisfying as it could have been. Then again, being fast-paced and abrupt is keeping itself consistent with everything else that came before it.
All things considered, this is still an excellent book which effortlessly transports you to a world beyond our current realm of possibility, while still making it entirely familiar because of the people who populate it. Although she may not be the female version of a John Wayne-esque cowboy, that probably suits the Miner right down to the ground – she is instead much more interesting and intimidating.