"An armchair was already dwindling into the corner as electrovistas opened up in front, the stream of cells blowing past. Bloodshot intervals of subterranean transport and the racket of magic." --Steve Aylett, Shamanspace
British writer Steve Aylett has been plying his narcotics-fuelled SF satire for nearly a decade now, fiercely lampooning society's hypocrisies and idiosyncrasies in the form of stylish and witty genre fiction. The dawn of the 21st Century saw him slip into high gear with the publication of four new full-length novels, a collection of short stories, and a short novel, all in the last two years. Published by Orion in the UK and Four Walls Eight Windows in the US, Aylett has garnered critical praise on both sides of the Atlantic, inside and outside traditional SF circles.
Writing in a style that resembles a bizarre blend of William Burroughs and Philip K. Dick (by way of Elmore Leonard), Aylett is best known for his sequence of books set in the iconic city of Beerlight: a crime-ridden urban-noir hell inhabited by a menagerie of grotesque, amoral characters and surreal, mind-bending technology. Characterised by their gonzo humour and casual absurdity, it's entirely possible to miss the dark current of vitriol that runs through them, and thus miss the points Aylett seeks to make entirely.
Shamanspace -- the short novel mentioned earlier -- is a very different beast from the Beerlight books.
Owing more to Aylett's less obvious influences -- great cynics and satirists such as Voltaire and Bierce -- Shamanspace is a savagely uncompromising expression of disappointment and anger. Whilst Aylett could never be accused of over-writing, this slim (but dense) novella pares his sharp and incisive prose right down to the bone. Altogether more aggressive and direct than his usual fare, Shamanspace sees Aylett attacking his thematic quarry with viscous, laser-like precision -- dispensing with it quickly and unceremoniously. Clearly fed up with people "not getting it," Aylett doesn't bother to pull any punches.
Shamanspace postulates a secret society of Gnostic philosophers, who have discovered not only that God does exist, but also that it's possible to take revenge on him for the crimes he's inflicted upon creation. The decision is made that this end should be accomplished as soon as possible, no matter what the cost.
From this relatively uncontested starting point however, a theological schism quickly develops within the group. One faction -- the Internecine -- believes that God's death necessarily entails the end of the universe, whilst the other -- the Prevail -- maintain that the universe will survive the demise of its creator and go on completely as normal. In addition, a number of splinter groups have formed around the fringes of the core debate; one such group believes that God should be tortured before he's killed, for instance.
Competing groups of Edgemen -- suave, super-powered occult assassins -- flit through etheric space on behalf of the various warring factions, searching for a weak point in the creator's defences -- where to place the bullet that will either destroy or liberate eternity (or both). Foremost among them is Alik -- the young and arrogant narrator of the text, charged with carrying out the hit by the Internecine faction.
Propelled along by sheer audacity, Shamanspace is a breathtaking, relentless roller-coaster ride; an action-packed metaphysical thriller that compresses over a thousand years of philosophical and theological argument into a narrative as dense as a neutron star. Aylett is well known for pushing the boundaries of language in an inventive fashion, and Shamanspace sees him characteristically employing an increasingly bizarre succession of neologisms and metaphors to evoke highly expressive, thought-provoking images. Rooms tumour; Volvos bleed gut lava. Aylett's writing is surreal in the proper sense of the word -- super-real, or more real than real.
The most significant feature of Shamanspace however, is the way in which Aylett eschews his usual humorous approach, leaving his scathing cynicism raw and exposed for all to see. For Aylett, profound disappointment and resentment at our state of existence is an unquestioned given, and the desire for revenge a wholly natural and correct one that we go to great lengths to distract ourselves from. God can be taken to represent any suitably abstract and impersonal authority -- the government, the world economy, Western society. . . . The important aspect for Aylett is the fundamental sense in which these institutions are opposed to the individual, and the unwillingness of the individual to adopt the only logical stance (i.e. the antagonistic one) towards them.
An angry and incendiary (yet deliciously cool and clear-headed) work, Shamanspace is far from being Aylett's most accessible book. It is however, the clearest elucidation of the attitude and world-view that informs all his other work -- and as such it deserves your immediate attention.
Nick Brownlow is a web developer and writer living in south-east England.