A Review of ESPionage: Regime Change by Paul Di Filippo

ESPionage: Regime Change: A Psychic CIA Novel
Tom Easton and Frank Wu
Amazing Stories, LLC. (August 27, 2023)
ISBN 978-8858412236
Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0CGG6GH5G/
by Paul Di Filippo

The popularity of every single science fiction trope rises and falls in unpredictable cycles. Sometimes it seems every new novel is concered with Armageddon; sometimes there’s nothing out there but space operas. Vampire and werewolves flood the shelves; then, the next time you look, it’s all climate fiction.

Telepathy—or paranormal powers, or wild talents, or psionics, embodied in slans or children of the atom or X-Men—is a motif that, to my eyes, has been underused of late—excluding, perhaps, the importance of the Force in the Star Wars franchise. In past eras, the field reveled in books like Robinson’s The Power or Bester’s The Demolished Man or Brunner’s The Whole Man or Sturgeon’s More Than Human. Not so much anymore. But maybe the tide is turning. One possible sign? Tom Easton and Frank Wu have delivered a rousing, up-to-the-second near-future thriller centered around mind- reading, a book so suspenseful and full of realpolitik, and yet so fun and warm-hearted, that it could reignite the psionics sub-genre all on its own.

We are quickly introduced to two of our main cast, and their nature is at once refreshing and surprising. Gabriel Thomas and Bernarde Cardonne are business partners in a fashionable Washington, DC, restaurant. Both are in their seventies, placing them at the outer limits of how we conventionally conceive of action heroes. But their quiet present-day routines hide a highly unusual past. Both men were telepathic spies for their respective nations, using their mind-reading skills to winkle out terrorists, saboteurs and other baddies, until they were put out to pasture.

Two things to mention at this point. The safe and unconstrained retirement plan granted to these once-vital men is reassuringly different from all the Prisoner’s Village-type scenarios most such novels deploy, and also a testament to the faith in the goodness of democracy that Easton and Wu possess, which is on extended exhibit throughout. A notable lack of cynicism about Western democracies is appealing.

Second, the authors have clearly invested lots of time in thinking about the practicalities of psionics, and fencing in their wild talents with practical parameters, so that there is no pull-a-rabbit-out-of-a-hat shennanigans. These authors play SF tennis with the net, not without.

In any case, the quiet existences of our heroes is about to change. Gabriel runs across an unknown fellow telepath who proves to be an expatriate Russian named Katrinka Kharatyan, an attractive woman of his own age cohort. Katrinka seems to know that a current wave of political assassinations and scandals will wash over all telepaths, but she is cagey with details. We do learn that she also has telekinesis and clairvoyance powers. And we also meet her young protégé/foundling figure named Colin, not gifted, but brave and resourceful.

This foursome quickly bond—just in time to be subject to mortal danger from mysterious assailants. They escape, only to fall into the somewhat benevolent but scheming clutches of the CIA, headed by Major Quentin Gibson, who was Gabriel’s old handler. Gibson is assembling a team to meet a new threat: the destabilization of Western nations to pave the way for a fresh war. It seems the enemy has their own wild talent crew out in the field, commiting the killings. (Intermittent chapters from their POV add to the complexity and thrills of the tale.). Soon, with the addition of other talents such as Calli and Winnie, things begin to heat up.

Wu and Easton stage an ever-escalating series of violent incidents that culminate in a grand showdown in France, where they pull out all the stops in a battle that does resemble something along the lines of the X-Men versus Magneto and his Brotherhood. Along the way come joy and tears, sacrifices and heroism. A totally satisfying ending nonetheless leaves the series open-ended.

Our authorial team, I should add, also invents a near-future milieu that is utterly convincing as a straight-line extension of 2023. It’s just a bit further logically and speculatively advanced from current conditions, but not so far out as to be strange and deracinating.

Racing through this quick-footed book, I found myself thinking, at times, of the work of Steven Gould in his Jumper series, and of Neal Stephenson and his penchant for practicality, providing the nuts and bolts of any such concept. But the earlier classic which this book most vividly invokes is, I believe, one by Heinlein, his novella titled “Gulf.” That psi-spy roller-coaster ride was always one of my favorites and, I think, remains underrated in RAH’s canon. ESPionage: Regime Change, without being slavishly imitative, stands shoulder to shoulder with Heinlein’s best.

It’s a thrill to see Heinlein’s visionary milestone being honored so well, in such a unique manner.


Paul Di Filippo, first published in Unearth magazine in 1977, has since published numerous collections of his shorter works – Destroy All Brains!, After the Collapse:  Stories From Greenhouse Earth, Lost Among the Stars and his latest from Wildside Press –  The Way You Came In May Not Be The Best Way Out.   Paul is a serial reviewer, having appeared in The Washington Post, Science Fiction Weekly, Asimov’s, F&SF, Locus and more.  He can be found on Facebook and Rhode Island (his personal website is currently undergoing an update but can be found here. Perhaps his most popular work is the The Steampunk Trilogy: Victoria; Hottentots; Walt and Emily.  

Paul has previously been published in Amazing Stories – The Mill, 10/1991, Ancient Hearths, Fall, 2019.

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