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Prime Books

Wednesday 28 May 2003

Two Primes Don't Make a Wrong

  • Monstrocity, by Jeffrey Thomas (Prime Books, 2003)

  • Tales from the Crypto-System, by Geoffrey Maloney (Prime, 2003)

  • Reviewed by Claude Lalumière

Remember those hoary old SF stories — supposedly set in the future but unable or unwilling to see beyond the social structure of the 1950s USA? It's pretty hard to read that stuff now without wincing. Even some otherwise well-written fiction filled with otherwise provocative ideas still unquestioningly featured servile housewives, nuclear families, and jarringly stagnant sexual, racial, and social politics. You'd think writers who prided themselves on their speculative abilities would at least try to see beyond the confines of their immediate cultural context.

Which brings me to Jeffrey Thomas's new Punktown novel, Monstrocity.

In the far future, Punktown is a human colony — a city — on the planet Oasis. Punktown isn't the city's official name — that would be "Paxton" — but "Punktown" is what most of its inhabitants call it.

Despite the future paraphernalia, the alien species, and all the rest, life in Punktown unfolds pretty much as it would in any contemporary metropolis. Only, in Thomas's case, it doesn't come across as an oversight or intellectual laziness. It's all too blatant for that. Thomas unambiguously and intentionally wants Punktown to be a reflection of modern life — amplified, distorted, fabulized, punkified, weirdified, but a mirror of modern life nevertheless.

For example, Punktown could easily be my hometown, Montreal. It certainly feels like Montreal. I doubt very much that it's actually based on the island city, but Punktown is presented and described so effectively as a metaphor for the archetypal Western 21st-century metropolis that I suspect Londoners, New Yorkers, Torontonians, et al. would also recognize their stomping grounds in Punktown's sprawling chaos.

Monstrocity is the first-person story of Christopher, a disaffected twenty-something guy stuck in a job he hates. His bizarre girlfriend starts to involve him in weird rituals that are supposed to open gates between worlds, eventually leading into a mess of murders, monsters, Lovecraftiana, corporate conspiracies, romance, and alien sex.

The narrative is compelling, and Christopher's voice convincing. The decadent ambience of Punktown is superbly evoked and described. The story is violent, brash, romantic, tender, sexy, dangerous, weird, and so much more — just like Punktown itself.

Christopher is an interesting and complex focus character who is believably portrayed, balancing his private obsessions, his love life, his selfishness, his compassion, his apathy, and his desire to do the right thing regardless of cost.

Monstrocity is also one of those delightful genre-bending experiences. Ostensibly SF — far-future, aliens, stellar colonization, etc. — its universe also encompasses demons of various stripes and other fantasy tropes. More than anything, despite the SF premise, the Punktown series is akin to the new weird/urban fantastic genre, as exemplified by Jeff VanderMeer's City of Saints & Madmen, China Miéville's Bas-Lag novels, and — its closest kin — Paul Di Filippo's A Year in the Linear City.

Will Monstrocity's groundedness in contemporary culture eventually make it as wince-worthy as much mid 20th-century SF? Time will tell, but I doubt it. It's much too savvy, much too aware of what it's doing and what it's not doing. But, for now, it works very well indeed. It's a resonant, exciting, and imaginative novel.

Imagine, if you will, a mason who can't tell the difference between stone and cement, or a carpenter who can't differentiate between nails and screws. Wouldn't trust them very far, would you? What about a writer who doesn't know a possessive adjective from a subject/verb contraction?

I don't think I've ever come across a book so riddled with homonymic typos as Geoffrey Maloney's Tales from the Crypto-System. Not to mention sundry other typos and errors, many of them involving number disagreements.

Is it really asking that much that a book receive, at the very least, a cursory copyedit? Prime isn't doing Maloney any favors by releasing his collection with so many typos.

Usually this kind of mess would have stopped me reading. The ultimate effect is much too jarring for me to be able to fully abandon myself to the pleasures of fiction. And it's disrespectful towards readers to release a book in so sorry a state — and expect them to pay for it. I realize that POD publishers often have limited resources, but this kind of shoddy editorial procedure is what gives the infant publishing system a bad name, and one would expect a publisher as ambitious as Prime to do better. Tales from the Crypto-System is not the first Prime release to be so afflicted (though not all of them have been), but it's the one in which it bugged me the most.

And it annoyed me so much because Tales from the Crypto-System is such an excellent collection of stories. It deserved better attention, from both its author and its publisher. It says a lot about the strength of Maloney's stories and the pull of his imagination that I managed to stay so involved despite the much too obvious lack of copyediting.

Tales from the Crypto-System contains twenty-one stories, for the most part culled from Australian magazines. They range from bizarre surrealism to political satire, from weird horror to SF drama. Most of these stories are passionately engaged, exploring the consequences of political ideals gone wrong or of political apathy.

Several stories take place in a recurring setting, a post-revolutionary Australia where the current status quo of exploitative corporate rule has been overthrown by a Stalinist regime that justifies its repressive excesses with facile lip service to environmental and social justice issues. These stories — including "5 Cigarettes & 2 Snakes", "The Taxi Driver", "Keep the Meter Running", and "Requiem for the General" — are among the book's strongest. The more directly Maloney deals with politics — such as in the book's finest gem, the previously unpublished "Bush of Ghosts", about a covert rebel activist who works as the personal assistant to a high-ranking official of a fascist regime — the more passionate and enticingly intricate are his stories.

Maloney never gives easy answers. He presents complex situations — be they about politics, love, anthropocentrism, racism, etc. — and lets these complexities play out in a manner that is always less than pat and that always rings true.

To discuss this column, and genre fiction in general, visit Claude Lalumière's Critical Speculations on the TTA Press message boards.

Claude Lalumière is a columnist for Locus Online, Black Gate, and The Montreal Gazette.  His short fiction has most recently appeared in The Book of More Flesh, Interzone, and Fiction Inferno.  2003 will see the release of three anthologies he edited: Island Dreams: Montreal Writers of the Fantastic (Véhicule Press), Open Space: New Canadian Fantastic Fiction (Red Deer Press), and, in collaboration with Marty Halpern, Witpunk (4 Walls 8 Windows). See for news and links to his online publications. Publishers: please send review material to 4135 Coloniale, Montreal, QC, Canada, H2W

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