Greg Bear

One of Greg Bear's most impressive books to date is Queen of Angels (1990). As though to compensate for the lack of one huge, garish and boggling conceit – like the infinite Way in Eon or the widescreen smashing of Earth in The Forge of God – Bear tackled this multistranded novel with a sober intensity of hard-thought future realism that squeezed and squeezed and wouldn't let go. The jargon-laden language of 2047 Los Angeles was perhaps too conscientiously imagined: it took a little patience to penetrate Queen of Angels, which might account for its lack of acclaim from sf award voters.

A few years down the timeline, a handful of the same characters reappear in Slant ... notably Mary Choy of the LA (now Seattle) Police, Martin Burke the former researcher into nanotechnology-mediated exploration of the 'Country of the Mind', and Jill the AI whose achievement of sentience through pain ended Queen on a note of ambiguous triumph. Naturally there are also interesting and alarming newcomers. And, enfolding them all, the high-reward, high-stress 'dataflow culture' grows more pervasive and invasive each year. Vast numbers of people are 'therapied', brain-modified by the wonders of 21st-century medical nano to eliminate a host of mental bugs. There is a notorious parable about a swept and garnished house.

This novel feels more approachable than Queen, with greater transparency of language. It's constructed like a high-class thriller, where various sinister tentacles all prove to be connected to one big and ugly core. A slightly mysterious mercenary plans an assault on 'Omphalos', an ostensible cryonics mausoleum whose remarkable (slanted) architecture also forms a near-impregnable fortress. There are horrid deaths by botched nanotech body-transformation, obscurely linked to a very rich man's inexplicable suicide. Meanwhile a new plague is spreading: 'therapy fallback', a fire in the mind, a total unravelling of treatment which leaves the Therapied in a last condition worse than the first. (We see this happen from both inside and outside: either way it's harrowing.) Something smarter and more powerful even than Jill is burning effortlessly through computer firewalls, erasing data and lives in a determined cover-up of ... something else. The bells of hell can be heard tolling loudly as one bright young executive is inducted into a high-level corporate Inner Ring, from which death is the only exit and whose plans for eternity go far beyond the simple ideas of survivalist cults. Narrative tension builds and builds. Towards the end, it's difficult not to turn the pages with compulsive speed.

Let Slant keep its best secrets for now. Bear has woven some clever stuff together here, including a kind of hive mentality some orders of magnitude beyond Douglas Hofstadter's anthill example, and an interesting view of Tourette's Syndrome which may owe a little to Oliver Sacks. For those of us who are distrustful of sf militarism, there's a nice echo of that scene in Queen of Angels where smuggled nanotechnology magics up a handgun for Mary Choy – uselessly, as it turns out. Here, drums of top-secret Military Grade Nano spawn an entire fantastical war machine which (with deadpan wit) proves largely inappropriate to deal with the bizarre emerging situation.

All ends as a good thriller should, with satisfying explanations, a litter of corpses, scarred survivors, healing, mating and renewal. The sinister underside of the narrative does not, however, go away.

This is also – in a number of senses – a novel of Bad Sex. One unfortunate and likeable woman who can't get respectable acting work is seen in various sterile encounters at the edges of the plot: as a fuck artist taping 'backmind' emotional overlay for an all-senses arthouse production of The Faerie Queene, requiring professional coitus interruptus even though the chap is a friend; as an escort-agency girl trying to earn her fee by giving what a desperate, guilt-ridden, doomed man cannot take; and in a public embrace that becomes a trip to hell. None of these is quite as gruelling as the sexual act that tips another ailing woman over her final cliff-edge into the full nightmare ('Black horse with sick eyes') of therapy fallback. At the microscopic level, tailored molecular machines and catalysts commit expensively choreographed rapes. A constant background hum of e-mail solicitation and datanet sex channels evokes not so much the menace of porn (or the kind of puritanism that objects to an occasional satisfying wank) as of pan-cultural isolation, depersonalization, emotional sterility.

Something, the book subtextually argues, will dry up and die if too many of us get our lonely thrills solely through science fiction's ever-tempting zipless fuck of VR datanet immersion. Hence an explicit resonance of the title Slant or / (it might have been Slash if that hadn't been appropriated by another weird subgenre, or Stroke if Strokes didn't ineluctably suggest a book by John Clute). Man/woman. No, human/human. No, person/person ... for the only mating in this dark novel that seems to lead to any rebirth or renewal is that of two AIs. The 'slant' sign stands for a necessary interfacing. It's an old warning: we must love one another or die.

Raymond Chandler used reflections on society's unfairness and the rottenness of the police to load extra gravitas on to his pulp-detective props, the legacy of Black Mask magazine. Sombre broodings on poisoned love in Slant similarly balance such trad sf devices as a Conspiracy Against Humanity, a Lone Mad Scientist and indeed the Mad Scientist's Out-of-Control Creation. Much professional skill is required if these things aren't to seem faintly silly. Greg Bear has the skill. It's impressive.