It seems appropriate that I'm posting this review right after Chris posts his review of Ubik, because Gun With Occasional Music is essentially a noir in the Dick-ensian setting. The style is hard-boiled, the plot labyrinthine, the ladies beautiful and cold and the men strong and solitary. And, of course, there are the babyheads, infants with adult intellects; anthropomorphic animals including a kangaroo assassin, an array of government-sponsored drugs with names like Forgetorall.
Conrad Metcalf, a tough-guy private investigator, is living a fairly comfortable life when his services are requisitioned by a man, Orton Angwine, who is accused of a murder he didn't commit. Metcalf reluctantly takes the case and, of course, finds that its roots go much deeper than he originally anticipated. I'm giving the plot the short shrift here--there's quite a bit more of it—but I'd rather focus on the world and themes in the book because a) someone might want to read this book, and b) it's just more interesting.
There's a lot going on in Metcalf's world, much of it related to the theme of identity. On the surface, there are the obvious connections: who is framing Ortwine, who is behind it all, and so on, but Gun takes these questions and digs deeper. Metcalf himself is something of a male-female hybrid, left without the ability to feel sexual pleasure after a transplant gone wrong, and he struggles with his place in relation to the women he meets throughout the story, most notably with Catherine in the included excerpt. Further, the concept of identity is further confused by the government's encouragement to citizens to use drugs of various sorts, drugs which make them forget, sleep, and enjoy themselves. This aspect reminded me quite a bit of Brave New World. Another interesting aspect is Letham's invention of Karma, not the Buddhist idea but a concept more closely tied to the colloquialism “Good Karma”. Karma in Gun's world functions as sort of a universal currency that controls not a person's ability to buy and sell but their ability to enter places of business, get jobs, or even form relationships. In short, a person's ability to live is governed by Karma which is regulated by the government based on behavior ultimately leading to a lack of autonomy among the populace. Even asking innocuous questions is considered unbelievably rude. This leads to a lack of individualism and, of course, governmental corruption and societal manipulation by those with the money and/or Karma to do whatever they want.
One issue I often have with science fiction is that, given its nearly limitless narrative potential, it rarely spends time examining the deeper questions of humanity. That's something I love to find in my reading, even my genre reading, and something Letham delivers. But fear not, sci-fi fans: there's also a kangaroo assassin.