Reviews of HIGH STAKES: A WILD CARD NOVEL and BOOKBURNERS

High Stakes: A Wild Cards Novel
Edited by George R. R. Martin and Melinda M. Snodgrass
ISBN: 978-0765335623

Bookburners
Max Gladstone, Margaret Dunlap, Mur Lafferty, Brian Francis Slattery
ISBN: 978-1481485579

Is the Bible the first shared-world fantasy novel? (Long ago, writer and editor Terry Carr joked that his coworker, editor Don Wollheim, famous for his sensationalist blurbs, might have published the Good Book as an Ace Double, with the paired straplines for Old and New Testaments being "War God of Israel/The Thing with Three Souls.”)

If we can put all sacrilege and irreligiosity aside, the question remains a serious one. In the Science Fiction Encyclopedia, John Clute responds in the affirmative: “It could be argued that the first shared-world anthology to make a significant impact on the Western World was the Christian New Testament…” And indeed the New Testament experience of a multiplicity of authors all working to chronicle a shared experience or vision strikes to the heart of a more secular and literary enterprise which today goes by several names, such as “shared-world fiction” or “franchise fiction” or even, clunkily, “multi-author braided meganovels.” The pejorative term “share-cropping” has also been tossed about.

The notion of more than one person combining their imaginative efforts and technical expertise to produce an organic unified narrative goes against the long-standing and dominant Romantic notion of the lone creator uniquely striving to reify a conception only he or she can fully comprehend, while exercising one-hundred-percent control over the shaping. And yet collaborating on fiction has a history at least as long as its counterpart modality embodied by the solo creator.

The instance of a pair of authors working together is so omnipresent and almost trivial that we will put it aside for the purposes of this essay, and examine more complex versions of collaboration.

All oral traditions of storytelling can certainly be regarded as collaborative in nature. As stories were passed down from generation to generation, they were doubtlessly embroidered by each teller. Despite the possible existence of an historical Homer, the Iliad and Odyssey we know today probably represent the work of many hands—or many ears and mouths.

As fiction became a bourgeois consumer item, commodified and capable of providing a living to its creators, commercial tactics of production involving multiple writers began to be employed, to maximize return on investment and get past bottlenecks. Just as painters had long utilized nameless assistants to finish or entirely produce canvases issued under the name of the more famous studio head, so too did Alexandre Dumas enlist helpers towards his ultimate achievement of some 310 books. Nowadays, James Patterson is the heir to the Dumas factory model.

But the spirit of collaborating for fun and for the challenge of matching wits rather than for sheer profit seemed to predominate over this factory approach. Festive “round robins” for a time enjoyed a vogue. In this practice, multiple authors generally contribute separate chapters to a narrative rather than mix their prose into a blended whole. The field of fantastika, noted for its close collegiate ties among writers, lent itself to the round robin, with one of the most famous, The Challenge from Beyond, involving even H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. (And of course, the contemporaneous “Cthulhu Mythos” pulp tales by HPL and friends established a collaborative narrative still underway today.) The mystery field had its share of round robins as well, with The Floating Admiral harnessing the talents of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, among others. Every now and then, the round robin novel resurfaces, such as the infamous Naked Came the Stranger and its irreverent offspring Naked Came the Manatee. Ken Kesey and one of his writing classes turned out Caverns, as by O. U. Levon. More recently, in The New Weird, edited by Jeff and Ann VanderMeer, I myself kicked off a round robin dedicated to exemplifying that mode of fantastika.

When Action Comics #1 debuted in 1938, followed a little over a year later by Marvel Comics #1, two of the largest and still extant shared-world enterprises were, all unwittingly, set in motion. Not only is every individual comic book a collaborative enterprise among writers, artists, letterers, et al, but the massive fictional universes known as the DC Universe and the Marvel Universe—intimately familiar to millions nowadays, in large part due to cinematic adaptations—have been formed by the cumulative input of thousands of creators. Madame Bovary as a character has but one parent, Flaubert, as does Leopold Bloom with Joyce. Superman and Spider-Man derive their history and substance from the myriad creators who have each added their contributions, small or large, through their storytelling. This quality of consensus historicity is both revered and dreaded as “continuity,” the canonical “bible” if you will that has been distilled through the sifting and discarding and highlighting of selected incidents from myriad tales.

Likewise, the major media franchises—who also employ the term “bible” for their continuity guides—are vast shared worlds. It is plain that Doctor Who, Star Wars and Star Trek have that same quality in common with superhero enterprises. But even mimetic shows that attain a certain magnitude of episodes grow into shared worlds. The Dick van Dyke Show or Cheers or Gunsmoke ramify by the same collaborative accretions as Firefly or Buffy.

The desire of fans with writerly inclinations to participate in these large fictional universes has led to an explosion of “fan fiction,” a phenomenon well surveyed and dissected. Again, although individual pieces of “fanfic” might be the creations of solo authors, in toto they are absorbed into the composite history.

The proliferation of internet platforms and social media have vastly facilitated and encouraged fan fiction, which has been around since the days when paper fanzines were state of the art. Sites such as Wattpad and deviantArt serve to host and disseminate the productions of fans. And cloud-based software such as Google Docs that allows multiple users access to the same files seem designed to foster collaborative writing. When the reported preference of the Millennial generation for team efforts over solo ventures is taken into account, it might seem that the day of the independent creator who does it all by himself or herself is at an end. But if this heroic figure is to persist anywhere, surely it will be in prose fiction?

And so it might be argued that these big shared world enterprises arose out of the nature of the medium: it generally takes multiple people to produce a comic book or a TV show, whereas a solo writer can still craft an entire tale singlehandedly—and nowadays even see it into print without help! But the gameplaying nature of fiction, as evidenced for instance in the round robin form, invites collaboration despite the isolation and stubborn independence of the typical writer. And, on a strictly mercenary level, if a book can have multiple famous authors associated with it instead of just one, it might sell more copies.

And so, particularly in the field of fantastika, shared-world ventures have come to earn a certain place in the field.

One of the first such instances were the two Twayne Triplet anthologies issued during the 1950s, The Petrified Planet and Witches Three. But they proved anomalous, and did not spark a trend. During the 1960s, prose spinoffs associated with several TV shows—The Prisoner and The Man from U.N.C.L.E.—illustrated the power of many hands toiling at one conception. But it was in the 1970s that the notion of an assortment of writers mutually laboring to flesh out a predetermined—or at least pre-outlined—universe crystallized and took off.

Roger Elwood, an editor who in this period had been assembling many theme anthologies (a mode allied to but not identical with the shared-world format), introduced A World Named Cleopatra, which featured stories adhering to a bible by Poul Anderson. The Thieves’ World franchise created by Robert Lynn Asprin in 1978 soon followed to great success, and the floodgates were open. In the subsequent four decades of science fiction, fantasy and horror there have been countless shared-world franchises of greater or lesser artistic accomplishment and duration. (One spinoff of the shared-world is the traditional festschrift volume, in which authors contribute stories that play with permission in the realms of the honoree. Volumes in tribute to Zelazny, Asimov, Silverberg and Vance among others have become landmarks.)

Although the freshet of commercially produced franchises has abated in recent years—oddly enough, despite the increased availability of platforms and ostensible affection for such ventures—new ones occasionally do still arise. And at least one shared-world program has reached its thirtieth anniversary with a new volume to hand.

The Wild Cards universe was established in 1987 by George R. R. Martin and friends. Its premise is simple yet expansive: in the year 1946, Earth was exposed to an extraterrestrial virus that bred superheroes (Aces) and super monsters (Jokers), and since that date history has been very different. Working from that conception, the series has accumulated roughly two dozen volumes to date. With a recent television option in hand, which Martin announced in August 2016, the future of the franchise seems assured.

The latest installment in book form was assembled by Melinda M. Snodgrass, whom Martin calls “my assistant editor and right-hand man on Wild Cards since its inception.” The writers involved are David Anthony Durham, Stephen Leigh, John Jos. Miller, Snodgrass herself, Caroline Spector and Ian Tregillis.

Probably the first thing to mention is that the contributions of each author are not demarcated—in distinction to the approach taken by our next subject. The narrative is a blended whole, and achieves a smooth organic mix, stylistically and on a unified pacing level. A stream-of-consciousness passage in the “Wednesday” chapter—seven chapters with the names of the days of the week constitute the speedy timeframe, overstuffed with events as it is—does leap out as a rogue element, but that’s about the only such individualistic obtrusion. The desired blend is hyperkinetic, punchy, noirish and short on any real aperçus or reflective moments about the underlying concept. Watchmen, this is not.

What’s being offered here is a thriller-cum-caper-cum-horror novel with flavors of the Hellboy, Suicide Squad and Deadpool franchises, all grim ‘n’ gritty. This attitude stands in distinction to the early days of Wild Cards, when emphasis was placed, at least in part, on unpacking the deeper meanings of superheroism—with a tinge of Golden Age optimism—and on examining the counterfactual changes that resulted from the “Wild Card” event of 1946. But thirty years of audience acceptance of the foundational novum, as well as the interior passage of time in the Wild Cards universe itself, has seemingly rendered such concerns obsolescent. (Insofar as counterfactuality goes, this universe, despite its major disruptions, still somehow features such familiar touchstones as Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films.) With Aces and Jokers just accepted as part of the landscape, stakes have to be sought elsewhere and raised—literally, as the title indicates.

And so we have nothing less than the potential destruction of humanity underway. And as the third book in “The Fort Freak Triad,” events are already avalanching at the opening shot.

Several threads run in parallel and eventually converge.

In one segment we follow the actions of what might be called the Establishment’s Aces: the team assembled under the banner of the United Nations Committee on Extraordinary Interventions. In another, we watch criminal Ace Mollie “Tesseract” Steunenberg as she attempts to stay free of the cops and enrich herself with teleportation crimes. Meanwhile, Marcus “Infamous Black Tongue” Morgan and his girlfriend Olena are on the run in Europe from a woman named Baba Yaga. But it proves rather difficult for Marcus to remain inconspicuous:

Marcus Morgan slid out of the barn. Normally, he was smooth and powerful, propelled by serpentine muscle that began at his waist and stretched twenty feet to the tip of his brightly ringed tail. He cut an impressive figure, snake on his lower half, a well-muscled young African-American man from the torso up.

And pursuing Baba Yaga in Talas, Kazakhstan, is an American cop named Francis Black, who soon discovers that a metaphysically chained-up demon whom Baba Yaga has been harboring is now rampaging freely.

On the video feed from the lead Kazakh tank, a thing came out of the fog: taller than a house, great spidered legs gouging the concrete of the roadway like gigantic pile drivers, its carapace above seeming to be composed of a dozen or more naked human bodies, writhing and wriggling like maggots inside a gelatinous sheath, their heads staring as one toward the tank, mouths open in screams of rage. Barbara could hear the creature, howling like a crazed mob, as the front two spider legs grabbed the turret of the tank, lifting and swinging it, sky and fog and ground spinning madly in the video, then that feed went dead.

And so in a campaign of chaotic superhuman thrust and parry, the nominal good guys fight to put down the extra-dimensional menace, swearing, snarking, snarling and sneering heartily, and undercutting each other for reasons of selfish glory-hounding, eventually succeeding despite themselves amidst a Boschian battlefield piled high with corpses and broken dreams. Franny Black ends thus: “Regret and guilt washed over him. He had become as monstrous as the woman he had punished.” The whole effect is rather similar to dark-hued Milkweed Triptych, participant Ian Tregillis’s own counterfactual series about Nazis, mutants and malign deities—a fact which might illustrate the tendency of a strong-willed participant in a shared-world coming to dominate the tenor of the work

On the whole, Captain Marvel, Billy Batson, would cluck his tongue and exclaim “Holy Moly!” at the rather dour evolution of the series.

* * *
The format of serial fiction can lend itself to a shared-world production, especially in the case of the round robin, where the baton of narrative is handed off at the end of each installment. Even with more pre-planning and coordination than in the shambolic fannish collusions of yore, these types of tales may retain more of a heterogenous, patchwork nature than a blended work such as Wild Cards. This is certainly the case with Bookburners, which first appeared as chapters on the website Serial Box, a platform dedicated to this type of fiction. Author Ellen Kushner helmed another such, titled Tremontaine, which is due out later this year. But first to hand in collected form is the one conceived by Max Gladstone.

Gladstone the originator naturally enough gives us Episode One, in which we are introduced to NYC cop Sal Brooks. Off-duty, she receives a visit from her wayward brother Perry who is carrying a stolen deadly book with magical properties. Hot on his tail are an odd trio, a priest, a woman and a friar of sorts, soon to be introduced as Father Menchú, Grace and Liam. Amidst satanic eruptions and various chases and confrontations, Sal soon learns that the trio represent the Vatican’s secret Societas Librorum Occultorum—the “Bookburners”—whose mission is to find and sequester all dangerous vile tomes. They eventually succeed in Perry’s case, but contact with the supernatural leaves Perry comatose. Sal is recruited to the team, and vows to seek a cure for her brother.

Episode Two, by Brian Francis Slattery, finds the team back at HQ in Rome, where Sal is introduced to the Black Archives librarian Asanti, the last major figure of the team. Then it’s off to another demonic incursion in Madrid. Episode Three falls to Margaret Dunlap, who chronicles an onslaught in the team’s own backyard, Rome. In Episode Four, from Mur Lafferty, Asanti leaves her wonted seclusion, with Sal, for Glasgow, where the legacy of her deceased mentor threatens the peace.

At this point, having seen an installment from each of the participants, it will be noted that while a certain consistency of voice and viewpoint is nicely maintained, individuality of vision is also allowed. For instance, Lafferty is inclined to flesh out Sal’s backstory more than her partners: “It reminded [Sal] most of a moldy old library relatives had shown her in Savannah…” And she is the one who explores Sal’s ongoing romantic relationship with Liam. Some of this might just be luck of the draw, as certain plot elements chronologically demand accounting by whoever’s on deck. But by Episode Seven, when Gladstone returns and kicks over the table somewhat by dividing his chapter into two threads, one of which does not for the first time feature Sal, and by deepening the backstories of the team, the reader senses that the players have more of a free hand with their material than otherwise, lending a pleasant unpredictability to what’s ahead.

And so, through a cosmopolitan variety of venues, introducing a splendid collection of nasties, cleverly exfoliating the hints of things to come planted early on, the Bookburners scrabble to protect the world against occult menaces, right up to a suitably resonant and definitive climax engineered by Gladstone in Episode Sixteen.

Neatly constructed as it is, Bookburners does not tread any new territory. Its depiction of the uncanny in our mundane sphere is not as florid or demented as Clive Barker’s saga of Harry D’Amour. It is not as droll about the intersection of bureaucracy and magic as Charles Stross’s Laundry Files. It does not offer the procedural grittiness or sense of place found in Paul Cornell’s London-centric Shadow Police series. Amiable and with a sense of bonhomie, it’s kind of a Night at the Museum-style version of these predecessors. Fun enough, but not as spooky or arcane as other entrants in this category. Still, it never palls and good-naturedly repays the reading.

* * *
As instances of the shared-world concept, Wild Cards and Bookburners illustrate, each in its own way, that collaborative fiction writing is a tightrope between visionary independence and communal compromise. At best, such narratives derive strength from the synergistic brainstorming of the contributors. At worst, they are like the wry fable of the horse-design group that produced a camel. Never likely to result in a masterpiece, the collaborative process continues to offer the not insignificant pleasures of seeing a group of writers trying on literary costumes they might otherwise never have worn.


http://sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/shared_worlds

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2003/apr/16/alexandredumaspere


http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/booknews/10711191/James-Patterson-how-the-bestseller-factory-works.html

https://skullsinthestars.com/2013/09/02/the-challenge-from-beyond-with-moore-merritt-lovecraft-howard-and-long/

http://www.martinedwardsbooks.com/roundrobins.htm

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naked_Came_the_Stranger

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naked_Came_the_Manatee

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caverns_(novel)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Collaborative_fiction

http://ebookfriendly.com/fan-fiction-websites/

http://www.business2community.com/leadership/millennials-prefer-collaboration-competition-01456213#X0PW4cBWp2VpG6pX.97


https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Petrified_Planet

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Witches_Three

http://sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/shared_worlds

http://grrm.livejournal.com/496792.html

https://www.serialbox.com/

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/tremontaine-ellen-kushner/1124023167?ean=9781481485586

Reviews of AN EXCESS MALE and THE SALT LINE

An Excess Male
Maggie Shen King
ISBN: 978-0062662552

The Salt Line
Holly Goddard Jones
ISBN: 978-0735214316

Dystopias are ostensibly pure science fiction, part of the "if this goes on" school of extrapolation. Yet they often bear an uncomfortable affinity to horror novels. If the premise of horror fiction is to chronicle the doings of a malign or off-kilter universe which is inimical to humans, then surely dystopias are meant to chronicle a malign or off-kilter civilization or culture or government which is inimical to the citizenry, or some segment thereof. (Sometimes a dystopia can be inimical even to the planet and nature itself.) And certainly a powerful dystopia delivers the same suite of emotions that a horror novel does: a sense of doom, entrapment, futility, estrangement, separation and injustice. Perhaps the saving grace that dystopias convey which horror novels really cannot offer is that any bad situation is potentially improvable. Whereas puny humanity can do nothing to remediate or soften the tortures of Cthulhu, aside from merely avoiding them individually for a temporary reprieve, the average inhabitant of a dystopia can always join the Resistance and work for a better world. And the transient nature of all mortal institutions also offers hope for a change for the better.

Two recent novels, both by women writers, showcase this tendency of dystopias to portray benighted hellscapes with possibly a scintilla of relief beyond their claustrophobic horizons.

The core rottenness or malaise or imbalance at the heart of Maggie Shen King's AN EXCESS MALE involves that all-too-familiar situation where a government feels the necessity to intrude into the most intimate matters of love, sexuality and domestic arrangements--spheres of behavior which we ideally imagine should be untainted by bureaucratic interference. But since pair-bonding and family setups of all sorts arguably form the foundation of society, governments looking to perpetuate and stabilize themselves, as all governments do, will invariably seek to regulate such matters, to greater or lesser degrees depending upon constitutional restrictions and cultural attitudes. Science fiction has recognized and speculated on this tendency since at least as far back as Huxley's BRAVE NEW WORLD. Innumerable novels since then have dealt with such matters, with Fred Saberhagen's LOVE CONQUERS ALL and Edmund Cooper's FIVE TO TWELVE among them.

King's tale is set in China a few decades hence. The fallout of the historical One Child policy dominates the scenario. The gender imbalance is such that forty million unmatched males of prime marriageable age must be placated and dealt with. Polyandry is the official solution. Professional matchmakers attempt to broker marriages for first, second and even third husbands, with the women, although numerically inferior, in the catbird seat. Some women, nonetheless, serve as Helpmates under the supervision of the Bountiful Love office, giving ten-minute sex sessions for money, a kind of pressure-relief mechanism.

We will tour this world through the eyes of four characters whose fates are intertwined, and who alternate chapters as narrators. Initially we experience this world via the viewpoint of Lee Wei-Guo, an unmarried man in his forties just now wealthy enough to attempt a marriage, thanks to his flourishing physical training practice. Wei-guo, a gym rat who also takes pleasure in officially sanctioned amateur war games, is the least complicated character of the set. I hesitate to call him a "mimbo," because he is fairly smart and honorable, but there is a touch of that to his affable character.

Our other three protagonists are already married amongst themselves. Middle-aged Hann and Xiong-Xin ("XX") are both brothers and also the joint husbands of the young and immature May-ling. They have brought forth a child, the raucous toddler BeiBei. Now they are about to consider adding Wei-guo to their menage. But the marriage has hidden fracture lines. Hann is secretly gay, a condition now dubbed "Willfully Sterile." He should not even be married. XX occupies a place on the Asperger's spectrum, a "Lost Boy," and he too is crooked timber, from the perspective of officialdom. And May-ling is somewhat shallow, self-centered and youthfully naive. Initially, however, Wei-guo views the setup as prosperous and high-status, highly desirable. He is also instantly physically infatuated with the pretty May-ling. But as he begins to be absorbed deeper into the relationship, he will learn of the various frailities of his intendeds. What is remarkable is that despite the pressures exerted by both the government and coworkers, neighbors, strangers and friends, the quartet will come to form strong bonds that help them to survive a climactic crisis in which Hann seems destined for a reeducation camp; Wei-guo seems culpable for a mortal disaster; XX seems destined to lose his job; and May-ling seems likely to shatter from all the stresses.

For the majority of the tale, King focuses resolutely on the personal level. The back and forth amongst the quartet, the various nuances of the courtship and the decaying marriage, are delivered with almost Jane-Austen-like granularity, a captivating drama. She invests her foursome with admirable depth and individuation. From Hann's sense of duty to May-ling's longing for some joy; from Wei-guo's earnest yearnings to XX's quirks, such as his love for a pack of feral dogs, these characters boldly rise in living color off the page. Yes, tidbits about the society at large are deftly inserted in the best science-fictional manner. But world-building is secondary for King. And there are really no macroscopic geopolitical issues addressed until about four-fifths of the way through the book. And, in fact, the whole situation in China is presented as a fait accompli, and not really subject to dissent or changes. There is no rebellion, no ultimate victory by our heroes--at least not in terms of engineering vast reforms. They win a local reprieve, but the China First juggernaut rolls on intact. Moreover, the rest of the world is ignored completely, no details given, in a manner that forcefully indicates that this narrow aperture is King's deliberate choice.

Life is not entirely horrible by any means in King's future. The majority of citizens have made their accomodations to strictures we would consider reprehensible and repressive. Part of this acceptance might stem from Idiocracy conditions. We learn of this when Wei-guo undergoes an intelligence test as part of his marital preparations.

"A farmer has seventeen sheep. All but nine die. How many are left?" [the doctor] says quietly.

"What?" It's clear that his question is a riddle. "Nine," I say.

"Your correct answer puts you about here [Above Average on the spectrum]. Sixty percent of the population can't answer the question you just did."

This matter-of-fact drollness captures the weary fatherland gravitas of King's world, whose harsh terms can best be navigated by either dumb mute acceptance or calculated cunning--along with a little love and affection..

Readers who enjoy AN EXCESS MALE must certainly direct their attention to the classic CHINA MOUNTAIN ZHANG by Maureen McHugh, which ponders an allied future with similar grace and allure.

* * *
The famous William Gibson quote--“The future is already here – it's just not evenly distributed."--adapts well to our theme today: "Dystopia is already here--it's just not evenly distributed." And so even when vast swathes of the population are enduring suboptimal conditions of misery, subjugation and oppression, there will be pockets of affluence and ease and relative justice where civilization seems still to be hewing to its lofty Enlightenment standards and values. The bleed-through between the two realms often serves as the narrative engine, as in Pohl & Kornbluth's THE SPACE MERCHANTS. And it's this fruitful strategy that is eagerly embraced, tweaked and fully realized by Holly Goddard Jones in her exhilaratingly grim The Salt Line.

The era of our tale is some four or five decades from the present, and the USA is no more. Instead, the country has been divided up into smallish enclaves of safety and 21st-century comforts--the Atlantic Zone, the Gulf Zone, the New England Zone, et al--with reduced populations, due to losses from a pandemic. Other vast territories between Zones are ungoverned wildernesses laced with ruins, ceded to the enemy that has brought down the nation. This enemy is a new kind of mutant killer tick, nearly unstoppable. Not only does the hardy species lay eggs in living flesh, eggs which burst into infant ticks that explode out of the body, but the ticks also harbor Shreve's, a disease that invariably kills in less than twenty-four hours. The Salt Line is the metaphorical designation for the cauterized land barriers that separate Zones from the wilderness. The fact that "Salt" also happens to be the term for a new designer drug is allegorically pertinent.

The cramped, cossetted, rich dwellers in the Zones often long for a taste of their natural heritage that has been lost, and so firms like Outer Limits Excursions have arisen to conduct back-to-nature tours beyond the Salt Line, even in the face of tick depredations. Stringent safety protocols exist, and mostly things go well. But not in the case that Jones presents. The current group--whose participants we get to immediately know well, in sharp, tight portraits--is about to be kidnaped by the outlaw, untouchable dwellers in the badlands and held as chips in a complicated bargain.

The pivotal characters in the expedition are Edie, a rare working-class woman who happens to have a rich boyfriend, the pop star Jesse. Then there's Wes, an IT genius and millionaire. Finally comes Marta, demure, cossetted and relatively principled Mob wife, whose bigshot husband David has been doing illicit business for years with the outcasts in the grandiloquently named Ruby City. When these three and their tourist comrades are abducted, they enter a kind of SURVIVOR-style endurance test where death from one cause or another lies in wait behind every tree or suspicious look from their captors.

My allusion to SURVIVOR is meant to convey some of the racy, profane, in-your-face tenor of the book. The novel is deftly written, and ultimately very far from any kind of reality-show shallowness or superficiality. And yet it does partake of a certain deliberate air of cinematic or televised spectacle, a kind of LORD OF THE FLIES meets A BOY AND HIS DOG, by way of Lucius Shepard. Unlike AN EXCESS MALE, the character development churns at a lower resolution, allowing Jones to concentrate on worldbuilding and plotting. The book is both a dystopia--in its presentation of socioeconomic realities--and a thriller, in its taut, suspenseful, fast-moving and unpredictable shennanigans.

Jones has a flair for vivid, tactile passages, and no compunctions about ladling out the gore, as the following passage demonstrates.

Marta plunged Wes's arm into the water.

He screamed, and the water bloomed crimson, and a strange smell filled the room: blood and metal but something else, almost sweet, like raisins, but on the edge of rancid. Wes convulsed in her grip, straining against his restraints, but she managed to keep his arm underwater, bearing down hard with both hands, her face only centimeters from its churning red surface. She had no idea how long this went on. Only a few minutes probably, though it seemed endless. Her arms ached, and her back and thighs ached with the strain of keeping her balanced (so easily she could fall into the water head-first, and she kept bracing herself for that eventuality).

At last Wes collapsed, and his arm went limp. She pulled it from the water and winced at the raw, ravaged flesh, which made a band around the meat of his forearm and stretched in a wet red mouth from the forearm's middle to mere centimeters from his armpit. She turned the arm, searching it frantically, and saw a furious black scurrying thing scrambling over the crooks and crags of the wet flesh. With a little wail of disgust she brushed it off into the water, and then she wrapped Wes's arm in the clean white towel she'd kept nearby for this purpose, and then she looked her own arms over, feeling ticklish feet where her eyes told her nothing moved. The tub of water was pink with a yellowish scrim on the surface in which floated little black specks, too many to count. Marta scanned the floor, Wes's bedsheets. She saw nothing. In the time it took to do these things, the towel around Wes's arm soaked red.


The fact that helpless, hapless, under-confident Marta is serving as stalwart nurse and strong support to Master of the Universe Wes is one of Jones's neat bits of unexpected character reversals.

Another key transvaluation is seen in the portrait of Ruby City and its cleanly delineated citizens, under the stern leadership of a woman named June. Although the hardscrabble place is far from a utopia, it stands as a revelatory mirror to life in the Zones, even providing a haven in the end for one of the tourists.. Here, the excruciations that Marta and her fellows undergo serve to anneal and purify them, showing us how good may arise even out of the worst situation.


And, in the final analysis, isn't that what dystopias are all about, the main service they perform, if they are not to be mere torture porn? The sharpest dystopias demonstrate for us that out of the abysmal conditions so vividly limned come heroism, redemption, reform, and a chance for individuals to make a difference and set things right.