Penguin, 2007. 390p
In a timeline known as the Real, machines called Turing Gates allow movement between different worlds. Adam Stone was once employed with The Company, a US government agency which carried out undercover operations in the other realities, here known as sheaves, to bring them into line with, and effectively subject to, the Real. The select band he was part of made up the Cowboy Angels of the title. Following the 1980 Presidential election a change of government leads to the abandonment of this policy in favour of a more cooperative approach to other sheaves.
A prologue chapter reveals tensions between some of the Cowboy Angels, and inside the Company generally, arising from this. The remainder of the book is set mainly in 1984, where, as well as the Turing Gates, the Real has technology akin to that of the twenty first century in our world, the likely equivalent to which in the book is known as the Nixon sheaf. For those who enjoy such speculaton there is also an American Bund sheaf and one where the US is communist.
Stone is working in an agricultural sheaf when he is called out of Company retirement as his old colleague Tom Waverly has been killing the various different sheaf versions (doppels) of a woman named Eileen Barrie and only Stone will be able to contact him.
Cowboy Angels starts off as an apparently gung-ho right wing tract but by the end of Part One the characters have begun to doubt the worth of interference in other sheaves and of the projection of power at the point of a gun. As a commentary on the invasion (in the reader’s world) of Iraq and the aftermath of that conflict this is pretty acute.
McAuley’s treatment of the Altered History scenario is explicitly Science Fictional as it involves a mechanism for movement between (and sometimes creation of) different sheaves. I liked the nod he made to previous authors who dealt with different worlds or realities by naming some minor characters variously Philip Kindred, Leinster and Laumer.
The unravelling of the plot leads to the revelation of a greater conspiracy within the Company and the efforts of Stone and Waverly to combat it, in the course of which a further SF McGuffin makes its appearance in the shape of a time key which alters the operation of the Gates.
As you might expect from the scenario there is plenty of violence dispersed through the book but the characters, especially Adam Stone, are rounded enough. However, there is perhaps too much over-complication of the plot and I found the resolution unsatisfactory.
I would, though, recommend this to anyone who wants their brain bent (a little) by the contemplation of paradoxes.