Smith, Kristine. 1999. Code of Conduct. New York: Avon Eos.

Reviewed 22 November 1999

Code of Conduct (cover) Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean that they're not out to get you.

This is an interesting technothriller set somewhat farther into the future than the usual Clancy-clones—much to the book's benefit. Ms. Smith succeeds in something that, although central to "contemporary" spy novels, is seldom done well: establishing the flavor of deep cover without pedantry. That she does so through a metaphor of hallucination and increasing disjuncture from reality should tell you more than you really want to know about the spies paid for with your tax dollars.

The novel features communication and miscommunication, limited understanding of alien cultures (both human-alien and human-human), and all the normal screwups that occur in any investigation or covert operation. But, in the end, everything turns on the question of whom to trust. The protagonist (Jani/Risa) must constantly reevaluate whom she can trust, and her own trustworthiness is not ignored. The shifting alliances and antagonisms are perhaps a bit too pat, but nevertheless seem plausible.

Jani isn't the most sympathetic of protagonists; she is neither an antihero nor a Pollyannish knight-in-shining-armor-fighting-against-the-evil-bureaucrats (like, say, Jack Ryan). She has her foibles, her skills, her blind spots, and her past to contend with. The milieu definitely brings a sense of paperwork gone amok to this former federal employee. The postscript's encounter between Jani, a green pilot, and the mysteries of exactly how one fills out and corrects paperwork ring true for lawyers and the federal government (and, for that matter, for pharmaceutical controls, taxes, and many foreign governments with which I've worked).

Code of Conduct has its share of action. Ms. Smith clearly understands, though, that covert activity is very much like Edward Bishop's description of WWI fighter combat: hours of boredom punctuated by an unpredictable thirty seconds of sheer terror. Perhaps better than any technothriller or "spy" novel set beyond "five years from now" that I've read, the pacing is integrated into the milieu, and vice versa.

There are many other fine, detailed touches in this novel, such as the "colonial dialect" that makes its way into the speech of the characters from extrasolar colonies, even when they're speaking English. Code of Conduct's greatest strength, though, is that Ms. Smith doesn't appear overly impressed by her own cleverness. The details are there to support the characters, the milieu, and the plot, not to become the characters, the milieu, and the plot.

Overall rating: 4 stars
Excellent (award candidate).
This book is an excellent example of Avon Eos's commitment to stretching boundaries. Let's hope that both the publisher and the author continue with that commitment.


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