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Review source: http://sfbook.com/harmonica-and-gig.htm
SF Book Reviews
Back in October last year I reviewed A Festival of Skeletons, an unexpected delight that had an abundance of energy and clever wit. Harmonica and Gig is the second novel by that author and while this is less comic caper it still has that same style, a dry, intelligent wit that you just can’t help but be swept away by.
This novel is very much a post-cyberpunk detective story, a lucid vision of the future where cyberspace – known as qverse – is a reality and a constant battle wages between security and hackers. The detective angle works very well within the high-tech backdrop and the plot features a number of genuine suprises, including the actual finale.
I do love Astruc’s style of writing, there is just so much energy and life to the narrative that you just can’t help but be hurtled along with it. The quality of the prose is top notch and the story is told without too much techspeak or hard scifi descriptions making it easy to read and pretty fast paced throughout.
What really stands out though is the characters, the strong feminine female lead of Harmonica works fantastically well – full of real strengths and weaknesses, while Gig acts as a very effective male counterpoint, young and naive where she is older and wiser (at least sometimes). The supporting cast are also just as beguiling and very colourful, even if they do fade into the background a little against the bright lights that are Harmonica and Gig.
I also loved the vision of the future presented here, the technological descriptions are visually acute, inventive and yet at the same time quite plausible. Set in a post-Australia that has become a part of South Asia, the resultant mixture of cultures and races provide an evolution in social concepts as much as technological ones.
Harmonica and Gig is a seriously good novel, dynamic, lucid with a copious amount of style, this is one story that I will remember for some time.
SF Book review gives HARMONICA & GIG 5 stars
Reviewed by Simon Litten, SFFANZ
Harmonica & Gig is, to my knowledge, R J Astruc’s second published novel, and such a wide departure in style and content from her first A Festival of Skeletons that comparisons are of little worth.
Harmonica & Gig is one part murder mystery, action thriller and another part cyber-space techno vision of a possible future. The story concerns a competitively structured, privately financed investigation into the death of a cyber-space (qverse in the book) developer, the interpersonal relationships of the three investigators especially the eponymous Harmonica and Gig, and the machinations of the three corporate owners of the qverse.
Although there are three investigators the action centres on Harmonica and Gig. Harmonica is the qverse name of Regina Carter, a self-absorbed middle-aged woman, who has a penchant for young men and a fine line in hypocritical double standards. Gig is the qverse pseudonym of Felix McGuiggen, a twenty-something year old naïf. Neither of the two central characters is truly likable: one because beyond her self-absorption she has a very short temper and is liable to mood swings at the drop of a moment’s frustration; and the other because he is a spineless, feckless individual who allows himself to be bullied into doing all manner of things beyond his better judgment. Despite these limitations I cared about the characters and what happened to them. In fact my hat is off to Ms Astruc for writing a novel with such unlikable characters and yet making the story so that I wanted these people to succeed.
This is a fast paced novel that moves with assurance between action in the real world and the qverse. The book did not out stay its welcome and reached its ending neither too soon nor too late. This is an author to watch and read.
Review source: http://agrippinalegit.blogspot.com/2011/07/book-review-harmonica-and-gig-rj-astruc.html
Book Review: Harmonica and Gig – RJ Astruc
‘”Two months ago a member of our staff ‘committed suicide’ in incredible circumstances,” said Viger, curling her fingers to denote the quotation. “He died whilst connected to the qverse. Since his passing, two other employees working on the same project have come forward and given statements. Each firmly believes that they were put under some kind of mind control as a direct result of logging into the qverse. In fact, they go so far as to say that they were hacked.”‘
Three qverse experts are hired to investigate the suspicious death of a qverse employee. There’s talk that his very brain was hacked and INTROMET matriarch Viger Singer is willing to offer a million dollar incentive (alongside a smidge of identity-revealing blackmail) in exchange for a result. Regina ‘Harmonica’ Carter – forty-something, cynical and the top of her game – is pitted against Lloyd ‘Talobos’ Hong and Felix ‘Gig’ McGuiggen, a designer-gened and paranoid hacker in his twenties. But, as their investigations continue, Harmonica and Gig begin to question the nature of the game they’ve been thrust into.
I have always loved RJ Astruc’s writing. She has the ability to draw me into stories that sit outside my usual reading tastes and to make me enjoy the kind of characters that normally I’d barely acknowledge. Her fiction combines an elegant and distinctive writing style with an ever-present sense of humour, which informs Harmonica and Gig‘s characters and universe. Although not a comedy, the novel displays a similar grasp of the quirks of human nature. Astruc is not afraid to give her characters flaws and, in doing so, allows them to break free of the usual sci-fi archetypes.
The qverse of Harmonica and Gig is well-imagined and described in such a way that its constant presence in the book’s universe feels natural from the very beginning. At times, the technological concepts discussed made my head spin a little, but this was likely due to their nature rather than any fault with their depiction. Indeed, this is a very tech-heavy novel, as the storyline would imply. Set in the near(ish) future, it combines new technology with the familiar in a surprisingly comfortable manner.
Although Harmonica and Gig employs a third person perspective, the chapters are split between Astruc’s two protagonists. Each has a distinctive personality, although this is demonstrated more through their thoughts and actions than the voice of their respective sections, allowing the writing to remain uniform throughout.
Harmonica is a fantastic character. She is strong, bold and unapologetic. Her actions are occasionally rash and she has one hell of a commitment phobia, but such characteristics are what make her so likeable. Harry’s a little bit larger than life, but she is not a caricature. And books need more female characters who are portrayed as being sexy (and sexual) beyond their twenties.
In contrast, Gig appears quite weak at first. He is young and pretty and seems out of his depth in comparison to Harry and Talobos. I, personally, didn’t find him as gripping a character as Harmonica, but grew to appreciate his different approach to the situation and to life in general. He is the perfect foil for Harry and his relative vulnerability is important in a book that deals largely in powerful and seemingly-invincible characters.
Harmonica and Gig is a wonderful sci-fi thriller but, for me, the absolute highlight of the novel is its universe. Astruc melds cultures and societies into a believable mid-twenty-first century world. Australia has become SouthAsia – a melding of Anglo and Asian peoples and cultures. The novel’s characters reflect the new racial landscape and offer an unforced glimpse into the social changes that have taken place alongside the technological changes described in the book. But Harmonica and Gig does not moralise. Indeed, its universe is refreshingly matter-of-fact.
Harmonica and Gig is an excellent novel that goes beyond its genre in presenting a storyline that is accessible to all but the most hardened of speculative fiction despisers. For those who consider themselves science fiction aficionados, it’s a must-read.
Review source: BIBLIOMANCY: http://jasonrolfe.blogspot.com/2009/07/how-rj-astruc-hacked-my-brain.html
Editor’s note: Lilly Press closed down shortly after publishing this book in digital format. This review is from that edition.
How R.J. Astruc Hacked my Brain
Harmonica and Gig by R.J. Astruc, Lilley Press, 2008
Jason E. Rolfe
The term ‘cyberpunk’ was first coined back in 1983 by Bruce Bethke, and has since been applied to writers as varied and visionary as William Gibson, Bruce Sterling and Pat Cadigan, and ultimately to post-cyberpunk writers like Paul Di Filippo and my personal favorite, Neal Stephenson. I would definitely include RJ Astruc’s Harmonica and Gig amongst the later.
The classic cyberpunk stories of the 1980’s generally took place in dystopian futures adversely affected by invasive technological changes, (think cybernetic augmentation or in-depth virtual reality). The stories symbolized, much like Shelley’s Frankenstein, the underlying fear that maybe, just maybe, science has come too far too fast.
Harmonica and Gig is not a classic cyberpunk story. Had it been a classic cyberpunk story I would have been disappointed. If one were to sit down and attempt to write such a story it would, in my mind, contradict the cutting-edge ideals that spawned the genre. What RJ Astruc has done, is write an excellent post-cyberpunk tale.
While post-cyberpunk stories, like Neal Stephenson’s Diamond Age, continue to focus on omnipresent technologies like cybernetics and virtual realities, they tend to lack the dystopian visions of the near-future that defined their predecessors. Harmonica and Gig, like all good cyberpunk tales, deals with hackers, manipulative mega-corporations, and an artificial ‘Qverse’ that serves to blur the boundaries between actual and virtual reality.
The blurring of reality is at the very heart of Astruc’s novel. When an employee dies whilst connected to the Qverse, rival hacks Harmonica and Gig are approached by Intromet to investigate claims that he may have been murdered via the Qverse. In short, they are asked to either prove or disprove the assertions that a person’s brain can be hacked using ‘Q’ code.
Harmonica and Gig is essentially a mystery. While I wouldn’t call it ‘hard-boiled’, Astruc does deal with Gig in much the same way writer Robert Towne dealt with private detective J.J. Gittes inChinatown. Throughout the course of his investigation, Gig is followed, harassed, spied upon, lied to, abducted and nearly killed. Mistreatment of the protagonist is common in cyberpunk. Gig is Astruc’s anti-hero, a rebellious hacker who does bring to mind malcontent detectives and private-eyes like J.J. Gittes. These misfits and malcontents put the ‘punk’ in ‘cyberpunk’. Gig fills this niche nicely. In my mind he’s a mix of Stephenson’s Hiro Protagonist and Y.T. (short for Yours Truly), and really exemplifies one of Astruc’s strengths as a writer – her ability to create individuals. Harmonica and Gig are two very unique, very real characters. The story aside, these two people drew me into Astruc’s Qverse. They were the code that Astruc used to hack my brain and convince me to love the tale she wrote.
Harmonica and Gig remains faithful to all the elements of cyberpunk fiction. It is a true testament to the classics of the genre, not by emulating the stories that have been told before, but by pushing the very boundaries of that genre.
Harmonica and Gig is available for purchase online from Dragonfall Press.
Any book that deals with virtual reality inevitably brings to mind the work of William Gibson and, of course, Neuromancer. This has both positive and negative aspects, since it both provides a mental foundation of the nature of virtual reality and the intrusion of quasi-physical beings into that world and, also, acts as a reminder that so much of the necessary framework has already been established. Gibson posited a world of petty and not so petty criminals using stolen or created in Heath Robinson style using improvised bits and pieces from junkyards and second hand shops. There is also, of course, a second negative aspect to writing about this subject and that concerns the nature of the technology. From ‘Neuromancer’ on, it has generally been the case that access to the virtual world (it is called the ‘qverse’ in Harmonica and Gig) is restricted to a small number of individuals with extraordinary abilities, either because of innate genius or advanced education paid for by hyper-capitalism and can only be meaningfully manipulated at the level of the real player with the mediation of sophisticated hardware. Unfortunately, this model has been superseded by reality: just a few years after Gibson wrote his seminal book, it became apparent clear that a very wide range of people were inhabiting cyberspace through technology that was rapidly maturing and diffusing throughout society. It may be that few of these people were the kind of power-users that a neuromancer might represent but, on the other hand, incredibly simplistic tools were made available to people to create new niches and wrinkles in the cyberspace without any real need to understand what they were doing. The big bucks, it has turned out, are made by making complex things very easy and available to everyone rather than restricting their use to a privileged few.
So it is with RJ Astruc’s novel of not too far in the future Australia or, as it has been renamed, SouthAsia. The cultural hegemony enforced by a resurgent Chinese (and Vietnamese and Korean etc) diaspora has spread across the wide and mostly empty continent. Some of the most enjoyable scenes in the book are those describing the transformation of Australian society as a result, particularly the description of Perth as Perking, a combination of western Australian space and fish and chips with a form of chaotic expansionism of East Asian society. These colourful scenes could, in my opinion at least, have been developed further as they provide some of the energy and vigor that occasionally drains away in the many chapters dealing with the creation and recreation of personal relationships between the main characters. There are, after all, reasons why leading science fiction writers generally tend to avoid considerations of bourgeois family life, even if as in this case such family life is enlivened by the presence of a cast of bitter ex-lovers, multiple mothers and the ability of people to change their appearance to better represent their own self-image. Putting these elements together provides a story framed by the two eponymous protagonists, who are hired to determine whether there can really be a physical connection between the virtual world and the real world such that the former can kill one of its users in the latter. As they pursue their investigations, they encounter rivalry between corporations aiming to control the qverse and deal with their changing emotions towards each other and their family members.
The dominant figure is the predatory Harmonica or Harry for short, who is a corvine creature with little interest in her various children but a voracious appetite for stimulants of various kinds and a ruthless way with dealing with intruders into the virtual realms she is given charge of protecting. Less interesting is Gig, who is a young man with the typical genius-like dishevelment that leads to him being described equally, if unconvincingly, as a ‘pretty boy’ and as having a spectacular lack of success with women. Quite what makes the main female characters have any interest in him is never really clear to me: his charms are, presumably, all on the surface but are not thoroughly described. It is as if the author visualizes the world primarily in visual rather than literary terms and would be happier creating a film or television program rather than a book. This is also true of the events of the plot, which are picturesque but seem not to create any inner resonance within the characters. Perhaps the author wanted to create the feeling of being inside a video game, as people of my generations are going to persist in calling them, with their sequences of puzzles to solve and which receive the reward of a completely discordant change in the relationship between the player and the manifestations of the environment. On the other hand, most people prefer this kind of action to the writing which is called ‘literary’ and therefore old-fashioned.
In reviewing books from smaller publishers – and even from very large and well-known publishers – I am very commonly provoked into moaning about the editing and so it is with some relief that I can honestly say that the editor (or editorial team) has done an excellent job in helping prepare a text that is as close to flawless as one could hope to find. It is suggested at the beginning of the book that this is a work that languished for a while and I can only speculate about the journey that the text has taken before finding its way into its current form. In any case, it has become an enjoyable voyage through the backstreets of virtual reality in the tradition of William Gibson. Australian readers and others interested in the southern continent will have a particular interest in discovering the ways in which that country has been reinvented for the future. I look forward to reading more from Dragonfall Press – especially since (the now necessary disclosure) I received a review copy of this book.
Harmonica and Gig is available for purchase online from Dragonfall Press.
Editor’s note: the reviewer seems to have mistaken the foreword in our publications as an indication that this novel was difficult or long in duration to produce. Not so, and apologies if this is implied.
Genre: SCIENCE FICTION
Title: HARMONICA & GIG
Author: R.J. ASTRUC
Does the title lead you to believe this book is quirky? Well, that’s what I figured and I wasn’t disappointed. In fact, I’m forced to admit that it’s almost too quirky for my limited intelligence. Although extremely well written and intelligently plotted, this novel was difficult for me due to the cyber/sci-fi blend of jargon—almost as if half of it was in a foreign language. However, readers who are up to speed with this genre will love it, and for the rest of us? Why, there’s plenty of mystery, murder, spooks, good old detective work and even a little sex. In fact, when you pick up this book, fasten your seatbelt, because you’re in for a thrilling ride filled with page-turning adventure in the q-verse—a digital and primitive, half-cyber, half-real world of primordial computer code and digitally constructed beings.
Harmonica is the q-verse handle for Harry, a remarkable woman protagonist and the supreme hacker. How does she know she is ‘self”? Because she thinks. Whoa, heavy. Gig is her boyfriend. Sort of. Along with a “neurotic online transvestite who sublimates his fears with alcohol” these colorful characters don many disguises as they investigate a murder, together and separately. Disguises? Skins is the author’s word. We get tortoises, chameleons, vampires, dragons, rabbits, and body-builders. And the default skin? Human. They can even hack into each others’ bodies. Like I said, quirky. Sublimated, there’s a wonderful ‘Alice in Wonderland’ feel to all of it (in fact Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum skins are featured).
Regardless of the genre and jargon, good writing should make the reader feel immersed in a conflict filled, make-believe world. Believe me—the author’s exemplary literary skills deliver plenty of tension while his vivid sensory descriptions and crisp, scene-setting narrative put us right there in the q-verse. His unusual characters leap right off the page and the rush to climax is satisfying. Throughout, I admit I was confused at times but never off course, even with my limited cyber-knowledge. Unfortunately, nowhere on the book jacket or inside is a bio of the author, R.J. Astruc so I can’t tell you anything about him (or her). However, I can tell you this: here’s an Australian writer who is extremely intelligent and talented. Fans of the genre should look forward to anything written by R.J. Astruc.
A Good Read, by reviewer: Jan Evan Whitford, Allbooks Reviews Int. www.allbooksreviewint.com
Published by: Dragonfall Press ©2004, 2011
ISBN978-0-9806341-4-3, Trade paperback,
Editor’s note: RJ is a her.