Secret Agent Man*
By Curtis C. Chen
2016’s Waypoint Kangaroo is Curtis C. Chen’s debut SF adventure novel.
The agent code-named Kangaroo may not be the most skilled agent in the agency, but he is their only super-powered agent. Too useful to fire, too hard to explain, a looming audit convinces Kangaroo’s bosses that this is the perfect time to send Kangaroo off Earth on an all expenses paid holiday to Mars. Independent Mars may be the player on the other side of the cold war gripping the Solar System, but it is also safely distant from the prying eyes of unsympathetic federal bureaucrats.
The bosses should have known: when you send an agent off on holiday, you can expect unforeseen complications.
The Dejah Thoris is six thousand tonnes of grotesquely over-powered luxury liner, one that can transport its cargo of pampered passengers to Mars in under a week. Not just a machine for moving people, the liner is also designed to extract money from its wealthy guests as expeditiously as possible. A wonderful place to stay, if you are travelling on someone else’s platinum card. It’s even better if you can manage a whirlwind shipboard romance.
The only off-note is the gruesome double murder.
In the wrong place at the wrong time, exposed as more than the amiable tourist he purports to be, Kangaroo is drafted by the crew to help find the killer. He and his allies believe that they are looking for a mentally-ill war veteran off his meds. What they actually find is far worse: a plot to crash the Dejah Thoris into Mars’ largest city. If Kangaroo and his friends cannot outwit their enemies, millions will die.
My apologies to the author: I am going to spend more time discussing the set than the play.
Many decades ago, in the early issues of the Mark Shaw Manhunter series, Shaw found himself on the trail of Dr Alchemy, a criminal who had mastered a limited form of transmutation. As Shaw pointed out, there are many legal ways Dr Alchemy could used his ability to get rich. What this criminal actually did was rob banks for money that he spent on buxom red-heads and betting on the Cubs. This was not a winning strategy.
Manhunter came to mind is because Kangaroo has an awesome special ability that is woefully misused. Kangaroo can open a 15m wide portal to a very large, very empty, pocket universe. All through the book I kept thinking of much more interesting things he could do with his power than the things he actually does. For example, he’s a one-man cargo fleet 1. He’s a one-man bomb shelter (although if he dies, the people hiding inside him are trapped). Given time, you could use him to move Europa’s oceans to Mars. There are all kinds of neat things Kangaroo will never do, because he has the wrong job.
Waypoint Kangaroo is set in yet another fictional universe with hilariously overpowered rocket ships: Dejah Thoris can accelerate at almost one gee for extended periods of time. This has some interesting implications, one of which drives the plot: space craft are all potential weapons of mass destruction:
Just one day at nine meters per second per second leaves the ship moving at 777,600 m/s. Ek = 1/2MV 2 means each kilogram of the ship has 3×1011 joules of kinetic energy. Since the Dejah Thoris masses six thousand tonnes, that means its total Ek relative to Doomed City, Mars, is 1.8×10 18 joules, well over 400 megatons of TNT. Which would be bad.
Of course, as certain historical events show, you do not need 450 MT of kinetic energy to wreak havoc with a stolen passenger vehicle. Even a more plausible rocket would be a potential WMD. But SF authors love spectacle.
Given that the Martian War of Independence involved asteroid strikes, you would think both sides would have distant early warning systems to keep an eye out for rocket drives on a vector that intersects a planet 2. As far as I can tell, that is not the case. The crew has to alert the authorities that there is a safety issue. A big one. But I suppose this is part of the setting: there’s no way to hoick asteroids at Earth without anyone spotting what’s up months ahead of time … unless the people in charge of keeping an eye out for gigawatt-plus heat sources are woefully incompetent. Apparently they still are.
What’s going here is Curtis is not the sort of detail-obsessed nerd who makes the fatal error of murdering his ability to suspend disbelief by learning too much about rocket science 3. He’s using a collection of time honoured stock props 4 to tell a story about a wise-cracking agent of a sort you’ve probably seen in a thousand books and movies. If you’re looking for a guy with a line in snappy patter who gets to zoom between planets, fight bad guys, and canoodle with one very lucky engineer, this is probably the book for you.
Waypoint Kangaroo is available here.
* A word of warning about my review title: those readers too young to have watched Danger Man should be immune to ear-worming provided they do not listen to this video.
1: Also a heatsink of tremendous potential, although only intermittently because keeping the portal open is tiring.
2: As it happens, this is a universe where stealth in space works given the right equipment, but the liner isn’t a stealth ship.
3: Don’t get me started on the waste heat issues involved in super-duper fusion-powered spacecraft. We’ll be here all day.
4: Old enough that Pournelle poked fun at them 42 years ago .