Paul Di Filippo Reviews Venomous Lumpsucker by Ned Beauman

Venomous Lumpsucker, Ned Beauman (Soho Press 978-1641294126, hardcover, 336pp, $27.95) July 2022.

I have been a fan of Ned Beauman’s work since his first book (Boxer, Beetle) and on through The Teleportation Accident; Glow; and Madness Is Better Than Defeat, reviewing them all at our happy Locus home here. If you click through to my review for Madness, you can follow the chain of reviews back to the start. Having expatiated at such great length on the writer and his works, I should perhaps be stumped for new things to say about his latest novel, which goes by the intriguingly bizarro yet unerringly apt title of Venomous Lumpsucker. But I am not at a loss, because Beauman does not repeat himself here, any more than he has from one book to the next in the past. This time around, he brings us a sharp-edged, high-tech, globe-spanning, deeply speculative tale of the near future, which by necessity is a novel all about extinction, cultural and physical shock waves, and the near-collapse of civilization, filled with brilliant characters ranging from the most venal to the most noble. The book is exciting, unpredictable, and thick with ideas; yet at the same time meditative, fated, and simple as a Zen koan.

We start with our focus on one of our dual protagonists, Karin Resaint. (Her surname logically enough denotes a certain holiness, but it’s a cranky, perverse, contrarian and self-flagellating kind.) Resaint has a job very evocative of this problematical era: animal intelligence evaluator. Her occupation is very valuable and in demand, because hundreds of species are going extinct all the time, and the organization that governs the penalties and safeguards for such extinctions (the WCSE) needs to know exactly what level of uniqueness is being destroyed, so they can levy the appropriate penalties and fees on the destroyers. Not that that actually helps any of the poor critters, but it feels virtuous. Resaint’s current mission is to quantify the intelligence of the venomous lumpsucker, a very rare fish. She discovers that it is among the most intelligent of all non-human organisms, and thus the Brahmasamudram Mining company, which wishes to intrude on the lumpsucker’s habitat, must be enjoined to stop. Even paying immense amounts of “extinction credits” afterwards will not suffice.

However, unbeknownst to Resaint, the mining company has already wiped out the biggest known nexus of lumpsuckers, and thus stands to forfeit many extinction credits. Here enters our second protagonist, one Mark Halyard, employee of Brahmasamudram. Mark, a bachelor striver and gourmand, has secretly wagered or embezzled or kludged or gambled away all of the company’s extinction credits, and thus will be personally responsible for a few million dollars in fines. That is, unless he can find one surviving colony of lumpsuckers. Who to contact? Who else but the lumpsucker expert, Karin Resaint?

When the two characters finally connect, it’s like a matter-antimatter explosion of personalities and drives and desires, reflected in the intense, witty, bantering philosophical dialogue between them. Halyard is all self-interest and utilitarianism and carpe diem; while Resaint is all guilt and high-minded principles and what-about-the-future. Yet neither one comes off as an unbalanced monomaniac. Instead, each one gets off stimulating arguments in his or her favor, presenting the reader with the equivalent of a vivid enjoyable Socratic teach-in.

But the conversation is merely one facet of the multiplex action, since Halyard and Resaint now must skip around the globe, following the clues that might lead to the lost colony of lumpsuckers. (Resaint’s concern is all for the fish itself.) This hopscotching plot allows Beauman to show us a host of future venues, such as a seastead city that is a kind of Temporary Autonomous Zone. Each locale and its ancillary characters (including a “mermaid” and an artificial fishmeat engineer) is cleverly and colorfully delineated, building a world that’s part John Brunner dystopia, part Kim Stanley Robinson “Least Bad Path.” Eventually their quest dovetails with the mysterious terrorist sabotage of the world’s biobank repositories, leading to the doorstep of eccentric billionaire Ferenc Barka and a thrilling conclusion.

Beauman tosses in a thousand great “eyekicks” that help limn his world. Here’s just one:

“I even considered the United States.”

Everybody but her looked at the floor. The avoidance of any direct reference to that country—a custom adopted in the late 2020s out of sheer embarrassment—was these days so strictly observed that for Resaint it was genuinely startling to hear somebody say the words.

But what is perhaps the most charming thing about the book is Beauman’s self-assured omniscient narration. What was an old-school narrative device here becomes almost postmodern. If, for instance, we need to learn about Resaint’s mentor/idol, a scientist named Horikawa, Beauman just puts aside the realtime action and lays the info on us, for a page’s worth of history that begins:

Horikawa , in the discussion section of her paper, compared the venomous lumpsucker to the kkangpae street gangs of Seoul during the Japanese occupation of Korea between 1910 and 1945…

I guarantee you will not skip a word of such delicious diversions.

With this book, Ned Beauman’s bust becomes enshrined in the same Hall of Jesting Prophets that features Neal Stephenson, Matt Ruff, and Nick Harkaway. If the next few decades do not follow a dire course very similar to that outlined here, it will only be due to the fact that our species paid real attention to Beauman and his cohort.

Paul Di Filippo has been writing professionally for over 30 years, and has published almost that number of books. He lives in Providence RI, with his mate of an even greater number of years, Deborah Newton.

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