Full disclosure, I’m a big fan of Kathleen McFall and Clark Hays. The Portland couple’s first foray into the wild world of book publishing was the Cowboy and the Vampire series, followed by a set of books pondering what would have happened if Bonnie and Clyde had survived their grisly demise and went to work undercover for the federal government. I have gleefully reviewed each and every book they’ve sent to me.
But their imaginations have again run wild, this time a science fiction/detective series looking at what our lives may hold in the not too distant future if everything that can go wrong does go wrong. And they’ve done it with their trademark undercurrent of humor that lifts an otherwise dreary future into something resembling — do I dare say — hope? “Gates of Mars,” the first book in the Halo Trilogy, is McFall and Hays’ best work to date.
Imagine, if you will, that all of our worst fears have been realized. The climate has warmed to the point that it’s dangerous to breathe the air, and most of the earth has become a toxic waste dump. Viral plagues have decimated the population numerous times. Democracy has been dismantled, armies have been privatized, and the richest families on the planet have fought a major war to grab as much as they can. The Five Families, the ultimate winners, have moved lock, stock and barrel to Mars, which has become a playground for the disgustingly wealthy, complete with regenerated plants and animals that have long since disappeared from their planet of birth. The only way for regular people to escape the drudgery of Earth is to win a lottery and go to work for the Families in glorified servitude.
And they’ve created an AI to keep tabs on everyone, everywhere, at all times. Halo has all of the worst features of social media all rolled up into one creepy lurker that controls every aspect of life. Big Brother, anyone?
Enter Crucial Larsen, a cop in what used to be Portland, Oregon, who’s just trying to do his job and survive in his squalid dump of an apartment. He rounds up those whose debts have grown to the point they are subject to conscription for whatever job needs doing. He can barely keep ahead of his own debt load, but it’s not a terrible life.
And then his sister Essential, a coder who won a lottery slot, goes missing. The Families, the head of Mars security forces, and his former girlfriend all plead with Crucial to find her. But things are not what they seem, and Crucial is caught up in a desperate struggle with a resistance force that plots to overthrow the Families and rescue Earth from Halo’s clutches.
As always, McFall and Hays’ characters are dimensional and approachable, and they’ve really hit their stride with their choice of genre. Crucial is a reluctant hero, a hard-bitten cop with a heart of gold and feet of clay — all he wants to do is go back to his life, enjoy a salt beer once in a while and sleep naked in the desert. Essential’s plight upends his entire existence, and he can’t say no.
And the giraffes? You’ll have to read “Gates of Mars” to find out. I’m already wishing they could write faster.
“Gates of Mars” will be available for purchase June 16, 2020, on the couple’s website, Pumpjack Press (www.pumpjackpress.com), and from the usual retail outlets.
Renee Struthers is the community records editor for the East Oregonian. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.