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High John the Conqueror cover

Organ McWhinney is a god, but you can call him Daddy. Once he stood alongside Deputy Prime Minister Manley Stanley as the head of the Flagellants, an order of paramilitary sadomasochists devoted to the Christian Socialist government that was ousted in a coup that led to the crowning of Andy One and America deciding to return to the loving embrace of the empire it once so cruelly spurned. As a prominent figure in the deposed government, Organ decides to fake his own death and abandons his teenage son to his own devices in a dystopian futuristic London. High John the Conqueror follows the amiable if not particularly bright Lingus McWhinney as he attempts to find his way in the world through encounters with CIA-sanctioned artists, nymphomaniac pirate rickshaw drivers, conga-playing court jesters, poet laureates who adopt their favourite catamites, and the chief chaplain of her majesty's prison hulks, who may or may not have a fetish for papal underwear.

Intriguingly for a work whose setting is so clearly the focus of the author's interest, High John the Conqueror shows no evidence of the tired and dusty world-creation that has come to blight post-Tolkien fantasy. Instead, Jim Younger's London is the result of a careful balancing act between the familiar and the other. For while Younger is fluent enough in the language of genre to make his setting accessible, he clearly shares no interests with the authors from whose genre he borrows. Indeed, while most authors who write about the near future use scientific extrapolation as a means of examining the science and politics of our own era, Younger's creation refuses to show its working and prefers shock and outrage to analysis. For example, his London features such genre staples as war satellites, government militias, and great cities turned into decaying shantytowns, but its residents are left with nothing but the most rudimentary of technologies, leaving the people of London to lives of physical, moral, and intellectual debauchery. The result is a dystopia that is both profoundly English and hugely reminiscent of the work of eighteenth-century artist and engraver William Hogarth (indeed, this is an aesthetic that was also courted by the great and underrated Plunkett and Macleane [2001]).

A political satirist and pioneer of sequential art (or the comic, as it is now known), Hogarth made a name for himself by depicting images of moral and physical squalor, as in his Gin Lane engraving of 1751 and his A Harlot's Progress and A Rake's Progress of the 1730s. However, where Hogarth's warts-and-all depictions of sex, alcoholism, and moral decay served a rather sanctimonious moral about his title characters winding up either hanged or in the madhouse, Younger dispenses with the moralising and treats the depiction of a decaying London full of alcohol, drugs, and bodily fluids as an end in itself. However, the author's desire to come up with shocking imagery does not limit itself to the setting, for while Younger clearly takes pleasure in describing the main character’s eyes as being glued open with "vaginal sludge" after a particularly athletic sex session, he also takes pleasure in filling this beautifully decadent world with colourful characters.

High John’s narrator, Lingus, is a nicely contrived creation whose enthusiastic if laid-back attitude provides the perfect platform from which to explore Younger's world. Lingus does not know much about the world, and what he learns doesn't seem to overly faze him, meaning that rather than an actual protagonist, he's more of a window through which we can observe other, more interesting people. Younger gives each of his characters a distinct speaking voice, often including a regional accent or verbal tic, an approach to characterisation reminiscent of that displayed in BBC TV's The League of Gentlemen (1999-2002) and the works of the Marquis de Sade. This approach can easily be summarised as the creation of grotesques, as the only trait common to all the characters in High John is how uncommon they are. This strangeness can either be painted in broad strokes—as with Rasp, the transsexual paramilitary who serves first as a nurse and then as a member of something called the "Cunt Coven"—or it can be subtle and reveal itself only gradually, as with Sarah, who on first appearance is the prim and proper daughter of a clergyman but as the book progresses reveals herself to be a ruthless social climber desperate to be impregnated by one of her social betters (particularly if he has divine blood).

The characterisation and setting of Younger's book show a love of purple prose and a taste for sensationalism, blasphemy, and decadence that will inspire snorts of recognition as well as laughs of disgust and delight. This over-the-top Hogarthian aesthetic forms the backbone of the novel and is, arguably, what the book is about. However, while the overall aesthetic of the book might say much about Younger’s taste in art, it is clear that the structure of High John says just as much about his tastes in literature. What plot there is appears in the final hundred pages and suddenly just stops with no explanation of what actually transpired. In fact, Younger has mentioned that in trying to get this book published he was asked to rewrite a section, and one suspects that this might well be why a book as joyfully anarchic and shapeless as High John should have sullied itself with plot. Clearly, the original intention was to ape the slices of life, superficial realism, and stream-of-consciousness writing style displayed by James Joyce in his short-story collection, Dubliners (1914), which Younger has admitted is something of a personal favourite. However, where Joyce used unusual techniques and literary devices to create beautifully observed and well-rounded characters, Younger is only interested in shocking us, and therein lies the problem.

Best experienced by occasionally dipping into it, the book is full of weird and wonderful characters and some positively filthy ideas, which prove to be most entertaining. However, while the book is undeniably successful at capturing a certain aesthetic vibe, it is equally undeniable that Younger ultimately has nothing to ask of his readers and nothing with which to challenge them. He borrows Hogarth’s prurience but rather than deploy it as a satirical tool, he is content to try to shock his audience with images of sex, violence, and drug use. He also borrows Joyce’s discarding of traditional narrative structures but has no interest in developing complex characters, exploring human emotion, or making political points. Raising the odd wry smile or amused chuckle is all well and good but with such high-minded influences and a clear eye on being part of the mainstream, Younger should be doing a lot more for his readers than mildly amusing them with vaginal sludge and funny names.

Jonathan McCalmont is a recovering academic. Currently teaching after conducting research in fields as diverse as biological warfare and the epistemology of metaphysics, he writes articles and reviews that are collected on his blog, SF Diplomat, and chairs the world's first childfree political group, Kidding Aside—the British Childfree Association.

Jonathan McCalmont lives in a wood in East Sussex. Twice shortlisted for the BSFA Award for Best Non-Fiction he writes mostly about film on his blog Ruthless Culture and mostly about science fiction as a regular columnist for the British science fiction magazine Interzone.
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