Muscle bound magic

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 July, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 July, 1994, 12:00am

Floating City by Eric Lustbader HarperCollins $190 OKAY, it's book-lovers' quiz time. Question one: is the first male to appear in Eric Lustbader's new book (a) a giant killing machine called Rock or (b) a pimply insurance salesman called Simper? Question two: is the first female to appear (a) a long-legged, firm-breasted Asian beauty, or (b) a squat pensioner from Hoboken? You guessed. Maybe you've already read Floating City, or maybe you think you don't need to. It still amazes me that any writer who wants to be taken seriously introduces women with lines such as: ''Mai was irresistible, with her golden glowing skin, her long lithe legs, her huge eyes and her firm-nippled breasts.'' In Lustbader's rosy-eyed view of women, that's what you call a warts-and-all portrait.

And what a world it is. The men have huge muscles, the women are all pneumatically rounded. There are men who don't have bulging muscles, but they have bulging craniums. The scientist in this novel is called Abramanov. He is fairly bright, not to put too fine a point on it. ''He was not only a genius in his own field of advanced nuclear theory and cybernetics, but was also the kind of visionary on a macro scale rarely seen among humankind.'' Phew! Another warts-and-all portrait.

And there's no shortage of action. You have explicit sex, extreme violence and cannibalism. And that's just in the short prologue before chapter one. After that the pace begins to pick up - and it never lets up for a second.

So what's the verdict on Floating City? It's a great read. No, really. I may come across as unsympathetic but what Lustbader is aiming to do is to give us a James Bond for the 90s and he does it very well.

His central character, Nicholas Linnear, is a new age man. He is sensitive to the unseen world. He has been trained in the mysterious ways of the East and has a large stock of Oriental phrases to throw into his vocabulary. Better than that he has special powers which enable him to detect danger, and look into people's souls.

Whereas James Bond's weapons in a chase would be mechanical - a fancy car, a high-tech gun, Linnear's are spiritual. He turns on his inner eye and gains an advantage on his enemies through Oriental mysticism. The old school of thriller writer would find this baffling. But Lustbader knows that many of his readers are the leisured Life Dynamics generation who have given up red meat and are looking inside themselves.

Now to the plot. All Lustbader fans need to know is that this book continues smoothly on from The Kaisho, his previous thriller. But newcomers who want a thriller with the flavour of mysticism can start with this volume. Everything you need to know about the story so far is included in it.

Linnear is trying to track down a mysterious firm in Vietnam which is making a new generation computer - a device which is based on the human brain and which will confer unlimited money and power on the company that brings it to the market place. Worse still, evil minds may be trying to use the technology to make weapons. Our hero interacts with doe-eyed Asian beauties and hard-headed Asian gangsters in a chase which stretches through the United States, Vietnam and Japan.

Lustbader has a good sense of the visual and captures well the bustling feel of modern Asian cities - particularly in his portrait of Cholon, the Chinatown of Ho Chi Minh City. He occasionally comes up with a description that really works well. ''The moon-faced boy was eating a banh chung, a traditional Vietnamese sweetcake made from sticky rice. A smear of beans, onion and pork, the cake's filling, made his smile appear wider than it was.'' During a tender scene between Our Hero and his Japanese partner, Lustbader writes: ''He could feel her heartbeat as if she were within him.'' He can write well. One only wishes he would put more of himself into the artistry of storytelling, and less into the theatrical dramatics that keep the plot moving.