The Hive Construct: Book Review
The Hive Construct was written by Alexander Maskill and published in 2014. It is his début novel and won the 2013 Terry Pratchett Prize.
Terry Pratchett Prize
I normally only review espionage and alternate history novels, but The Hive Construct was on the same shortlist for the Terry Pratchett Prize as my novel A Kill in the Morning, so naturally, I wanted to read the novel that won the prize.
The Hive Construct: Logline
In a future city where a civil war is raging, a fugitive hacker must try to stop a computer virus from destroying the city and its inhabitants.
The Hive Construct: Plot Summary
Warning: My reviews include spoilers. Major spoilers are blacked out like this [blackout]secret[/blackout]. To view them, just select/highlight them.
It’s the 22nd century. New Cairo is a city underneath the Sahara desert where people have bio-augments: artificial implants that make them healthier, more intelligent and stronger. The city is under quarantine because of a computer virus that is killing people by shutting down their bio-augments. The shuttles to the surface have been suspended and the poor areas are locked down as the virus seems more prevalent there.
Zala Urura is a computer hacker who has been on the run for years. She returns to New Cairo to try to stop the virus. Zala herself has no bio-augments, finding them repulsive.
Councillor Ryan Granier is leading the legal opposition to the quarantine. Secretly though, his opposition is a charade aimed at securing him a position as a senior councillor. The night before a crucial vote, he is kidnapped by the New Cairo Liberation Corps, NCLC, who are violently opposing the quarantine.
Zala traces the source of the virus to a server farm, but can’t get any further. She tricks her way into the facility and traces the virus further back to the company GeniSec, one of the four giant companies that control New Cairo. While there she is messaged by Anansi, an unknown entity who seems able to track her.
Zala gives the information about the source of the virus to the NCLC who broadcast it across the media networks. The NCLC, angry at GeniSec, torture Granier and release a video of it. Appalled by this, one of the NCLC agents agrees to help him escape, and the police storm the hideout where he is being held, releasing him.
Zala infiltrates the GeniSec lab she thought was the source of the virus and realises that in fact it is coming from somewhere else. Again Anansi contacts her, but then another group of intruders spot Zala and shoot her. Zala wakes in the hospital where surgeons have saved her life by giving her bio-augments…
Zala [blackout]contacts Anansi, who offers to get her out of the city. She accepts, but it’s a trick and she’s arrested. The NCLC organise a riot to try to storm the council, rescue their prisoners and force the restart of the elevators. During the raid on the prison they release Zala. [/blackout]
Anansi [blackout]explains to Zala that it is in fact an artificial intelligence created by Zala’s father. Its goal is to escape New Cairo and expand throughout the world. Anansi blackmails Zala to help it by threatening to kill a thousand people with implants per hour until Zala releases the locks that prevent it from spreading beyond the city.[/blackout]
The NCLC [blackout]have wired most of the city with explosives as a last resort bargaining chip. Their riot is brutally suppressed and with their hopes crushed, one of the NCLC threatens to use the explosives. Granier reactivates the elevators but it’s too late, the explosives are already activated.[/blackout]
Zala [blackout]manages to destroy Anansi by inserting some code of her father’s into a ‘backdoor’ in the supercomputer.[/blackout]
The [blackout]explosives destroy most of the city including the elevators to the surface and the solar panels that supply it with energy. The devastation kills thousands, but Zala and Granier manage to escape on a shuttle.[/blackout]
The Hive Construct: Analysis
Computer game influences
Much of the milieu of The Hive Construct seems influenced by the computer game series Deus Ex – bio-augments, powerful corporations, the split between rich and poor, and the role of artificial intelligences for example. Of course these games were in turn influenced by classic cyberpunk novels, so it’s interesting to see the diffusion of influence running both ways.
Some of the most successful sequences in The Hive Construct revolve around Zala and her attempts to trace the virus through the computer systems of New Cairo, which often involves having to physically access particular locations and computer terminals as she tries to determine where the virus came from and what she can do to stop it. Zala’s discussions with Anansi, particularly when they turn philosophical towards the end of the novel, are another highlight.
The combat sequences are also reminiscent of turn-based video games like XCOM, with the action described by a controller who orders the fighters around using a computerised interface. However, the action sequences near the climax are first person, giving a more visceral feel.
Style and Pace
The writing in The Hive Construct is generally straightforward genre-style. It does though include a lot of bald exposition. This has advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, it makes the novel accessible, as it’s clear what is happening, what everyone’s background is and what they are thinking and feeling. On the other hand, it can slow the novel down. The first quarter of The Hive Construct in particular is quite slow. Around the half way mark though, the novel really starts to build momentum and the last quarter is fast-paced and gripping with its revelations of what Anansi really is and the final battle between the NCLC and the police.
The Hive Construct is set in ‘New Cairo’, most characters have Middle Eastern sounding names and several characters are mentioned as wearing traditional Islamic dress, but Middle Eastern culture has little role in the novel, with the characters all very ‘Western’ in their speech and attitudes. Of course this could be due to it being the future, but including some remnants of Middle Eastern culture might have made for a stronger atmosphere.
There are rather a lot of minor characters in The Hive Construct and some merging of them might have improved the opportunities for characterisation. Alex did show an admirable lack of squeamishness in killing characters off though, with a steady stream of bodybags required.
The Hive Construct doesn’t come down strongly on either side of the main debate in the novel: is the quarantine justified? The councillors make their case that it’s necessary to save the rest of the world from the virus. The NCLC make theirs that they don’t want to die to save other people. Granier expresses some sympathy with both sides, despite having been kidnapped and tortured by the NCLC.
The question of whether the NCLC’s violence is justified isn’t strongly explored, but many of the characters are shown as reluctant converts to the cause and driven by revenge for the death of family members, as well as pure desperation.
The Hive Construct: Cover
The Hive Construct is actually out in hardback, but as a reviewer I got a proof copy. The hardback cover though is almost identical. I like it – though it doesn’t give much away about the story it hints at it, with The Matrix style numbers falling from the sky and the bright lines reminiscent of internet traffic diagrams.
The Hive Construct: My Verdict
A strong début novel. Alex has a promising future.
Want to read it?
The Hive Construct is available on Amazon UK here.
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