by Curtis C. Chen
Waypoint Kangaroo is the debut novel of Curtis C. Chen. It’s a science fiction spy thriller, and it’s quite a lot of fun. The title may puzzle, but it begins to make sense once you learn that the protagonist is a US spy codenamed “Kangaroo.” In classic Bondian fashion, the first chapter of Waypoint shows us Kangaroo just winding up a mission in Kazakhstan, trying to slip out of that country without attracting attention. He fails rather badly at this and winds up on the wrong end of a chase, though to his credit, he puts himself at risk to save the life of one of his pursuers. So he’s an ethical spy.
Kangaroo returns to Washington to get chewed out for sparking a diplomatic incident, and his superiors send him on an enforced vacation until the ruckus he’s created has a chance to settle down.
This being about two centuries in the future, “vacation” means an all-expenses-paid-by-the-agency holiday trip to Mars, aboard Dejah Thoris, the flagship of the Princess of Mars Cruise Line (Get it?), a Disney-esque company that has brought interplanetary travel to the middle class masses. That includes stuffing the ship full of food, drink, entertainment, and hundreds of ways to separate the passengers from their money. This would be the vacation of a lifetime for your average working stiff, but for Kangaroo, it’s hell on earth. Hell in space, I should say. He paces the ship, as restless and miserable as a tiger in a cage, and it’s hilarious.
You see, Kangaroo is deeply embedded in this spy business. His real name is so secret he won’t even tell you, the reader. He has all kinds of cool spy tech surgically embedded in his body. He can do things like scan a person or a piece of equipment with his eyeball or communicate with his superiors by blinking in the right pattern. If that isn’t enough to wow you yet, Kangaroo also has a unique psychic power: he can access another universe, which he uses for storage. He calls it his “pocket.” (His code name is “Kangaroo.” Get it?) He’s got a ton of gear in there, gear no one else can detect, but he can access at will.
But none of this is helping Kangaroo relax. His job is literally a part of him. It’s in the nature of his career that the quotidian pleasures of his fellow tourists—family, relationships, sightseeing—are like a foreign language to him. Hence his difficulty getting into the spirit of life aboard Dejah Thoris as he travels toward Mars in a ship stuffed with people he can’t relate to. How to relax and have a good time just isn’t part of a spy’s skill set. All Kangaroo can manage to do is eat too much and drink too much until boredom finally drives him back into espionage. He begins to play spy aboard the ship, scanning and studying the other passengers, trying to work out who they are and what they’re up to, because that’s the only real pleasure he knows.
His job is also his hobby, it seems. Still, it’s harmless enough. Until he discovers that something really is going on….
I’m not going to spoil the plot. It’s a well thought-out adventure taking place in a future solar system still recovering from a terrible war, where some people just can’t let go of the past. Plot twists abound as Kangaroo traces out a conspiracy that starts with murder and graduates into crimes far more horrifying, a plot that keeps Kangaroo (and the reader) guessing until the last chapter.
So instead of spoiling the plot, let me say a word about Kangaroo’s interestingly limited psychic power. I keep thinking of Larry Niven, who used to love to play around with this stuff in his early works. Gil Hamilton, for instance, who had the power of telekinesis, but in his mind it was a “third arm,” so he could only do with it what a hypothetical third arm could do. Or Matt Keller of A Gift from Earth, who had the ability to force other people’s pupils to dilate or contract, and thereby induce an increase or decrease of interest in whatever they were looking at. Early Larry Niven would have loved Kangaroo.
That’s all well and good, but I have a protest to make.
This is a fun thriller, yes. Complex mystery? Check. Pulse pounding denouement? Check. Fun and startling technology? Check. Every reviewer gives Curtis Chen credit for these things, and justly so. But I want to talk about character. Kangaroo is an intriguing and complex character, a fact which gets less attention than it deserves, because of all the fireworks going off around him. He lives his life so deep undercover that even he can’t seem to keep track of where his cover story leaves off and the truth begins. How do you get close to other people when you can’t even tell them your real name? It’s a question Kangaroo finds himself wrestling with. He is an orphan, and the brief flashes we get of his childhood are more chilling than heartwarming. He has no relationships. He doesn’t know how to enjoy himself. The only thing Kangaroo has in his life is his very special job. And when your work becomes your pastime, when your identity is something assigned to you by your boss, do you actually have a life at all? Even his face isn’t his own; it’s been surgically altered to be nondescript. Not too handsome; not too ugly.
There’s hardly anything left of Kangaroo (whoever he is) underneath the accoutrements of his career. And the thing is, it sometimes seems as if he’s not even very good at that. But you have to be careful here. Waypoint Kangaroo is told in the first person, which means the narrative is filtered through Kangaroo’s own insecurities, which appear to be many. So maybe he’s just being hard on himself. He covers his insecurity as many people do, with a nonstop patter of jokes. These range from clever to cringeworthy. (He actually considers using the old “If I could walk that way…” chestnut, which must be 300 years old by Kangaroo’s time, but thankfully, he thinks better of it.)
In other words, Kangaroo is just like your conversation partner at your last party. You forgive the clunkers because the next one will be better, just as you forgive Kangaroo when he screws up a mission, because you know the next time, he’ll do better. And that’s what makes Kangaroo so endearing. He has no identity, apart from his work. He tries hard, even though he’s not sure he knows what he’s doing, and if he fails, he tries harder, all the while wondering who he is and how he wound up in this mess. (Sound like anyone you know?)
But you can’t help but wonder what drove him to give up a shot at a normal life for this. Was he running away from his awful upbringing? If so, he has exchanged a stunted childhood for a stunted adulthood. How long can he keep mingling with happy vacationers, pretending to be one of them while silently acknowledging theirs is a life beyond his reach? How long can he keep lying to everyone? How long can he keep covering up the contradictions of his existence with one-liners?
Waypoint Kangaroo ends without answering these questions, but this is the first book of a series, so happily there will be plenty of room to explore these questions in future books. Thrilling plot, exciting twists, and imaginative gadgets are always fun, of course, but I’m looking forward to learning more about Kangaroo, because underneath the plot fireworks, there’s one very intriguing character here. Let’s not forget to give Curtis Chen credit for that as well.
by Curtis C. Chen
And while I was writing the review for Waypoint Kangaroo, I went ahead and read Kangaroo Too, which continues the adventures of Curtis Chen’s marsupially-codenamed spy. I’m not going to write at length about the plot, as that would only spoil the adventure. I’ll just say that this book is a worthy follow-up to its predecessor, and it probes more deeply into Kangaroo’s character and background, which is what I was hoping for after I finished the first book. This character examination comes in a surprising way; I don’t want to spoil the surprise, so I’ll just note that it is hinted at in the title. Read Waypoint Kangaroo first, of course, but after you do, you’ll surely want to pick this one up as well.