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.

A Powell's Books Partner

  • You can buy this book on-line through Powell's Books. At this writing, it's available as a mass-market paperback.

  • the fine print first (you'll need to replace "{at}" with "@" on the address line). Please come back soon.
  • Return to Savage Reviews
  • Return to The Savage Beast (est. 1215): Literary Reviews and Resources on Speculative Fiction
Intellectual Property Rights: © 1999 John Savage. All rights reserved.
You may contact me concerning permissions via email. This copyright notice overrides, negates, and renders void any alleged copyright or license claimed by any person or entity, specifically including but not limited to any claim of right or license by any web hosting service or software provider, except when I have transferred such rights with a signed writing that complies with the requirements for transferring the entire copyright as specified in Title 17 of the United States Code. This includes, but is not limited to, translation or other creation of derivative works, use in advertising or other publicity materials without prior authorization in writing, or any other non-private use that falls outside the fair use exception specified in Title 17 of the United States Code. If you have any question about whether commercial use, publicity or advertising use, or republication in any form satisfies this notice, it probably does not. Violations of intellectual property rights in these pages will be dealt with swiftly using appropriate process of law, probably including a note to your mother telling her that you're a thief.
"The Savage Beast", "Savage Reviews", "Surreality Check", and the dragon-and-book banner are trade and service marks of the website owner. Other marks appearing on these pages belong to third parties, and appear either with permission or as exemplary references.