Begging publisher Solaris's pardon, but Jeffery Thomas's novel deserves a better introduction than the blurb on the back cover provides. Informed that "Punktown, crime-ridden metropolis on the colony world, Oasis, is home to the scum of countless alien races," and that "Stalking its mean streets is Jeremy Stake, the private detective," I began to suspect I was dealing with the literary equivalent of a straight-to-video release. But whilst Jeffery Thomas's novel is not without its tackier elements, the overall package is unpretentious and enjoyable.
As we learn through nicely balanced flashbacks, Jeremy Stake is a veteran of the Blue War, one of an expanding humanity's many cross-dimensional conflicts. The jungle setting and oriental Ha-Jinn enemy explicitly evoke Vietnam, but Stake is haunted less by memories of conflict than by the pretty blue face of the deadly Ha-Jinn assassin with whom he fell in love and hasn't seen since the war ended. Now earning his crust as a gumshoe for hire, Stake has a useful if unwelcome trick up his sleeve, courtesy of the mutating effects of the pollution blighting Oasis's less opulent cities: Caro Turbida, or Restless Flesh, a condition which causes his features to mimic those of anyone he gazes at too long. Stake's been hired by wealthy business magnate Fukuda to track down his daughter Yuki's missing Kawaii doll. The latest must-have accessory for the fad-conscious schoolgirl, Kawaii dolls are biological, partly living, an offshoot of the bio-engineering industry whose primary function is the manufacture of the titular Deadstock—headless cattle whose brainless condition makes them more amenable to the privations of battery farming than their fully-formed counterparts. Yuki's doll is one of a kind, manufactured by her father's own company, a priceless if rather creepy paradigm of the bio-engineer's art. In short, Stake's latest gig sounds like it should be a pretty easy ride ... assuming his client is giving him the full story, of course.
Elsewhere, two street gangs are in trouble. Javier, head of the Folger Street Snarlers but a decent young chap at heart, is on the trail of a missing gang member. His search leads him and his gang to an empty building, a luxury apartment complex named Steward Gardens which has seemingly never been used. Having broken in, Javier et al are promptly trapped inside by the mysterious Blank People, silent humanoid automatons patrolling the perimeter who thwart any escape attempt with limb-tearing efficiency. Already trapped in the building are the surviving members of the Tin Town Terata, a rival gang whose members have run afoul of Steward Gardens' welcome committee. Survival necessitates an uneasy alliance between the various humans, aliens, and mutants who make up the two gangs.
Punktown, you'll have gathered, is a colorful place. Part the Ankh-Morpork of Terry Pratchett's novels, part 2000AD's Mega-City One, it's the perfect playground for a writer who reserves the right to hop from SF to urban fantasy to supernatural thriller as the muse dictates. Thomas has been having fun in Punktown for some time now, over the course of several novels and numerous short stories. Some background is therefore necessary for first-time visitors, and this Thomas provides primarily through dialogue between Stake and his client Fukuda, supplemented with Stake's internal reflections on past events in the city. Whilst Thomas handles this well enough to sidestep the pit of direct exposition into which so many writers tumble when faced with the challenge of a hefty bundle of backstory to convey, he does sometimes err on the side of brevity. If you find yourself wondering, as I did, exactly what is meant by the "other dimensions" referred to throughout the novel, then be forewarned that no additional information is forthcoming. Ditto Ouija phones which, like the Kawaii dolls, are a schoolgirl's plaything, enabling the user to listen to the fragmented lamentations of the dead. The question of how this fantastic device functions is perfunctorily dispensed with in a few unsatiSFying lines, and the equally pressing question of why this extraordinary invention has been relegated to the status of a toy, rather than, as one might expect, been elevated to the center of a society-wide theological and philosophical debate, is not addressed at all. However, as a first-time visitor to Punktown, I'm inclined to attribute these gaps to my own unfamiliarity with Thomas's stomping ground (to judge from the titles of some of his other works, which include Letters From Hades (2003) and Unholy Dimensions (2005), it seems likely these gaps have been filled elsewhere), and whilst a cynic might argue that we're still left with a story that does not entirely support its own weight, I prefer to view these vaguer aspects as tasters for Thomas's other novels.
The novel's setting, then, is sometimes inconsistent, often daft, and a lot of fun. Are its occupants as memorable? On the whole, yes. As a war veteran turned private detective embroiled in a Case Spiraling Out Of Control, Stake was always going to face an uphill struggle to avoid being a cliché, but Thomas is generally succesSFul in dispelling the stale aroma of familiarity which might so easily have put us off his company. True, he hangs out in a veteran's bar and has a one-room apartment in a seedy part of town, but these more formulaic elements are offset elsewhere. For one thing, Thomas portrays Stake's flaws and vulnerabilities as often as his prowess with fist or firearm; his face in its natural state is "unfinished-looking [...] infant-like [...] and mannequin-like" (pp 32-3), illustrative of the lack of identity which haunts him throughout. He also gifts Stake with a compassionate streak, a quality that lends his character another facet. When it comes to the two gangs trapped in Steward Gardens (an enjoyably claustrophobic plotline which will give any fan of Romero or Assault on Precinct 13 a blast), Thomas probably throws more names at us than we really need, but out of this oversized crowd of characters emerge several who engage our emotions, in particular Javier and Mira, whose burgeoning romance is touching.
If you're a fan of H. P. Lovecraft, you'll find Thomas's appropriation of that writer's themes either an impudent liberty or a bit of a laugh, depending on how seriously you take Lovecraft's output. Having read most of what the more earnest Lovecraft fans call the Great Works, I can report that Thomas, who has previously ventured into the murky waters of the Cthulhu Mythos in his short story collections, borrows from the Lovecraft canon with respect, if not with any particular subtlety (Lovecraft's Old Ones here become The Elders, the Necronomicon a computer chip called the Genomicon). Nonetheless, this aspect of the novel is entertaining and unexpectedly poignant; as behooves a writer utilizing another's ideas, Thomas adds his own spin, turning one of Lovecraft's most famously unpleasant beasties into a tragic, almost sympathetic figure. And that, perhaps, illustrates what is best about the novel. It would be easy and not entirely inaccurate to summarize it as enjoyable nonsense, but it would also be doing it a disservice, since Deadstock can and does deliver emotional haymakers that add depth to its unapologetic trashiness.
Finn Dempster writes book and film reviews for varous ezines and his local press. He can usually be found in his local library, bookshop, and occasionally his place of work. He's currently awaiting, with cautious pessimism, the response to his PhD application.
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