The debut novel by Tyler Black
What could possibly go wrong when your tech firm sends you abroad on a trip to Eastern Europe? Nothing, right? It’s just a work trip. Accommodation is already taken care of and you’ll surely find some fine company to keep you entertained.
Free Radical opens with James, who is also the narrator, sitting in an old truck filled with cigarette smoke and a lot of vodka, with one of his colleagues/companions of misfortunes, Kieran, and Valentine, their local guide. They’re waiting.
This already tragicomic situation will get worse before it gets better, as they say. The night before, over a lush feast and too much alcohol, the unlikely trio has taken the improbable decision to pack and go hunting “the Russian way”. This means, as we will soon find out, a lot of waiting in the truck, drinking and smoking and chatting. As much as James and Kieran are grateful for the hospitality, enclosing three such different personalities into a confined space for such a long time, adding Valentine’s linguistic barrier and the fact that Kieran is the stereotypical IT geek more interested in programming computers than surviving in polite society, is a recipe for disaster.
In a flashback chapter, we discover why James, Kieran and a bunch of other colleagues are in Estonia: they are working with a Japanese company, the Hayashi Corporation, on an Artificial Intelligence product called Taro, a dog-shaped robot. Taro is programmed to pair up with the owner’s voice, learn about their needs and provide for them before they ask for it. The team believes it’s a great idea that will help elderly people feeling less lonely and be taken care of at the same time. Estonia appears to be the perfect place to gain access to a suitable production plant and all the raw materials needed to build this top-of-the-range IT product.
The hunting trip takes a turn for the worse almost immediately: Kieran is shot by mistake and requires urgent medical attention. The trio therefore drives on frozen roads and the amount of alcohol Valentine downed doesn’t do any favours to his driving skills, culminating with them capsizing the car. They are lucky enough to come across an old couple of farmers leaving nearby who help them with basic first aid. In all this, Taro – who’s travelling with the party in Kieran’s backpack – is active and learning. After having been paired up with Kieran, it will actually find a solution for his master’s deteriorating mental and physical conditions, of which no one is aware of.
How we went from a modern office in Canary Warf, London, to an isolated, snowy forest somewhere outside Tallin, Estonia, will be revealed chapter after chapter, in a ping-pong of scenes set in the present and immediate past. It actually takes a while to piece all the elements together and the temporal sequence of events is not always straightforward, making it difficult to follow the story at times. Overall, there’s a good balance between descriptions and narration, with dialogues sounding very natural, underlying the writer’s talent. However, the narration is sometimes weighed down by too many technical references, be it jargon, Russian talks or explanations on how computer programs work, which could be quite discouraging for computer novices or non-techies.
The story structure itself could benefit from a thorough polishing of the timeline: while I don’t mind a medias res opening (it’s actually greatly appreciated and a clever thing to do), there are too many back and forth in-between events that don’t seem to have a clear connection to one another until the end of the book. The risk is to lose the timid sci-fi reader, who may never get to the end to see how events are actually knitted together.
Characters composition, though, is great: they are so realistic they may seem the guy sitting three chairs down from yours in your office. As Black himself says in a back cover note, he took inspiration for many of his characters from people he actually met along the way, and that made, in my opinion, a big difference in their personification, making them lovable, laughable and relatable.
All things considered, I found it an interesting debut story, with its ups and downs. We always need to remember that even the best books are not perfect and while this one could do with extra editing, it’s an enjoyable, funny and gripping story that deserves a chance.
Free Radical is available for purchase on Amazon: https://amzn.to/3ByB6R9
About Tyler Black
Tyler Black is an author currently based in Reading, Berkshire, England. Free Radical, his standalone debut, was inspired by two specific periods in his life: first, a backpacking trip that drew him to Estonia in the late 1990s, preceding the collapse of the Soviet Union, and his experience of the chaos of that short-lived period; and second, a two-year stint in the UK’s tech industry that lapsed into decades, and which allowed him to pick between the teeth of the corporate beast and glean much from colleagues’ treatment of others. Many friends were made along the way, and many sights seen, all of which shaped his writing and the characters he crafted.