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Murder In the Solid State

by Wil McCarthy

hardcover edition

David Sanger is a rising young nanotech researcher; his idea of a really neat weekend is presenting papers and rubbing elbows with his idols at an international conference on molecular fabrication. However, the academic backbiting at the conference gets a bit out of hand when a rival, Big Otto Vandegroot, picks a very public fight with David and attacks him with an extensible sword (plastic, but deadly) known as a drop foil. Someone presses a drop foil into David's hand, and he manages to defend himself and dump Big Otto on his butt.

Big Otto Vandegroot is a right dastardly villain who does justice to his name. His invention of a molecule detector (the "Sniffer") has made him the darling of the fascist Gray Party, and he uses his political clout to stifle his colleagues' research. By rights, he should have long waxed mustachioes to twirl. He wouldn't get to twirl them for very long, though; the morning after the fight, his body is found, and the murder weapon is the drop foil that David obligingly covered with his fingerprints the night before.

Despite the title and the setup, Murder in the Solid State isn't really a murder mystery so much as an Evil Conspiracy story with some interesting speculation about nanotech thrown in. I had mixed reactions, but on the whole I enjoyed it.

The story is full of interesting and likable characters, none of whom are David Sanger. David spends most of the book either reacting to the bad guys' actions or following the good guys' instructions. The plot moves rapidly, though, and every time there's a lull in the action, the story cuts ahead to the next rude awakening.

I would have liked to have seen more about the construction and functioning of nanomachines. There are also some rather nifty gadgets on the macro level, such as the drop foils and the Hud Specs that David is given by his best friend, a lawyer with the improbable name of Bowser. There is an underlying exploration of the effects of new technologies on daily life and the related loss of personal freedoms. Incidentally, the author seems to have an inexplicable fondness for vomit similes; don't read this while battling the flu or watching campaign commercials.

The writing could use some polishing, and the protagonist could use a personality, but I enjoyed Murder in the Solid State. It's a fast read with some interesting ideas. Besides, SF really needs more villains with names like "Big Otto the Sniffer King".

-- Christina Schulman.
Reviewed in
August 1996

hardcover edition
Publisher: Tor
Date: August 1996
ISBN: 0-312-85938-4
Binding: hardcover
Pages: 252
Price: US $22.95, Canada $32.95

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