As a general rule, I am skeptical of speculative predictions about a current author's likely influence on the future. Too many variables factor into the equation for such speculations to be anything but dubious at best.
Thus, when I read Paul Kane's blurb on the back cover of Simon Logan's I-O claiming that future writers will undoubtedly imitate Logan's "Industrial" style of fiction as much as William Gibson's cyberpunk style has already been imitated, I balked. My ingrained skepticism kicked in, and I turned to the first page with a feeling of doubt.
Within just a few pages, I had forgotten those doubts. By the time I finished the book, I was a bona fide fan of Logan's work. And while I'm still not willing to make predictions, I can certainly understand what would motivate Kane to advance such a claim. I-O resonates with a strength of authorial vision that renders it a powerful and compelling reading experience, and I would not be at all surprised if it did prove influential.
The book consists of eight stories. The first, titled "prism: the mechanisation and deconstruction of beauty," tells of a future scrap yard worker who discovers a beautiful secret and then attempts to hide it from his brutal fellow workers. "coaxial creature [above]" describes a world in which pylon engineers live suspended like flies from a power grid high above ground level. In this giddy environment, one of the engineers begins to suspect that a monstrous creature may lurk in the electrical surges that regularly sweep through the grid. "partofit" tells of an unnamed future factory worker who unwittingly makes a bid for individuality in an environment where the sole purpose of life is to keep the machines operating smoothly. "ignition" presents a love story of sorts, in which a terrorist anarchist named Shiva links up with a man who cannot die, and uses him to create explosive mayhem in a soulless industrialized world. "foetal chambers" is a brief and poignant story about the unintended result of a genetic research project. In "the method of pulse," a man gives his life (and his body) to complete, or perhaps atone for, his participation in the scientific quest to reduce a woman to the pure essence of her being. "iron lung" is a highly surreal story about a man who keeps a woman imprisoned in a sealed environment far underground in order to protect her from the monstrous vermin he perceives living on the surface. The final tale in the collection, "akin to insects," takes place in a near-future dystopian version of Seattle, and tells of a group of young women calling themselves the Electric Diva Initiative who use their sexual charms to search for a man they can worship as a god.
As mentioned above, what unites these stories and makes them distinctive (aside from the obvious shared dystopian setting and "industrial" focus) is the strength and clarity of the author's creative vision. One has the sense that Logan was compelled to write these stories, as if they were squeezed out of him by the force of his imagination. There's a certain breathless sense of inevitability about the progression of the plots, and about the reactions and interactions of the characters, that indicates a fully fleshed-out conception of a grim industrial world and the types of people who would likely populate it.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in stories such as "prism" and "ignition," where the central plot element is never explained. The beautiful object the narrator discovers in "prism" is described in various ways -- "a construction of glass shards, breakages, fragments . . . a multitude collision of glass . . . composed almost entirely of edges, like a great diamond" -- but is never clearly defined. In fact, the narrator says he has discovered a mere reflection of "her" (whoever "she" is), and in the end we are left with the feeling that some transcendent principle of beauty has become temporarily embodied in the narrator's grim life.
Similarly, in "ignition" the narrator's indestructibility is presented without explanation. We first meet him when he is in the process of immolating himself. Later, when Shiva uses him as the ultimate terrorist weapon by strapping high explosives to his body and sending him to infiltrate various factories and industrial complexes, he always survives, and we always believe it. The lack of explanation keeps us reading, keeps us on the edge of our seats in expectation of being given a reason. And amazingly, we do not care when it never comes. The final moments between Shiva and the narrator are so compelling, so authentic in their emotional flavor, that we feel our questions have been answered even though we are left in the dark.
This, more than anything else, generates the sense of Logan's having been driven by a vision. For despite the prominent lack of explanation for such fantastic and surreal elements, we believe them. It is as if Logan somehow dreamed the stories onto the pages, with the result that these quirky elements retain a typically dreamlike sense of significance and veiled coherence.
The book does have a few weaknesses. "foetal chambers" struck me as underdeveloped. The central premise is rich enough to carry a novella, yet Logan tells it in five pages, and the result reads more like a synopsis than a fully realized story. "akin to insects" jarred me with its abrupt transition to a semi-realistic setting. Logan's decision to mention the names of real people and pop cultural items, such as Kurt Cobain, Marilyn Manson, and the movie Eraserhead, strikes me as ill-advised, coming as it does on the heels of the purely imaginative settings he employs in the other stories. (This is notwithstanding the fact that he sets "coaxial creature [above]" in Reykjavik, Iceland. Reykjavik as it appears here is simply a generically exotic locale that Logan has made over in the image of his imagined future dystopia. Plus, ninety percent of the action takes place inside the fictional power grid miles above ground level.) In terms of prose style, his writing displays a recurring problem with comma usage that tends to throws off the rhythm of some passages.
But these flaws are all superseded by the aforementioned imaginative power of the tales. "foetal chambers" rests upon such an interesting premise that my criticism boils down to the fact that I'm simply disappointed Logan did not expand it to greater length. "akin to insects" features a female protagonist whose characterization is dead-on, and concludes on a devastating and heartfelt philosophical note that echoes the ancient Zen injunction to kill the Buddha if you meet him on the road. The occasional lapses in sentence mechanics sink beneath the weight of Logan's usually-sparkling prose, which paints a vivid picture of a harsh and grim alternate world.
I thought I detected a few hints of specific literary influences on these stories. Logan's portrayal of industrial work environments smacks at times of Fritz Lang's Metropolis. The surreal setting and tone of several stories reminds me a bit of William Burroughs' work. I even caught a whiff of Philip K. Dick a time or two, although I can't quite say where or why.
And that brings us full circle. I'm still not willing to make predictions, but I do think Logan's I-O is fully worthy of having an influence on the genre. The book is a bit uneven in places, a kind of diamond in the rough, but it has lodged itself in my brain and will not easily be ejected. This is the best function a work of speculative fiction can serve: to leave the reader with the lingering impression of having walked in a different world, experienced fantastic events, and seen the "real" world brought into a different focus. My hat's off to Simon Logan for providing just such an experience.
Copyright © 2003 Matt Cardin
Matt Cardin is the author of Divinations of the Deep, a collection of spiritual horror stories from Ash-Tree Press. His ebook Mindful of Horror, which showcases his academic writing on issues relating to horror and spirituality, is available as a free download. His stories and essays have appeared or will soon appear in such publications as The Children of Cthulhu, The HWA Presents: Dark Arts, The Thomas Ligotti Reader, and The Urbanite. He works as a high school English teacher and is currently finishing up a graduate degree in Religious Studies.