Ever since William Gibson’s Neuromancer came out in 1984 and scarfed up the three major science fiction awards (Hugo, Nebula and Philip K. Dick), the term “cyberpunk” has proven to be a viable term marketing departments can use to describe any manner of speculative science fiction. Most of these author’s books, however, don’t come close to Gibson’s originality in either substance or form, and Steve Aylett’s Atom is no exception.
Billed by its publisher (Four Walls Eight Windows) as “metacyberpunk,” we are given to believe that this bizarre novel is “sheer mayhem illuminated by wit of the first order, intense violence relieved by startlingly original use of language.” I’m not exactly sure what “wit of the first order” is supposed to mean, but if it means a half-baked satire using a host of characters so cliched they become a pastiche of a cliche, a plot so inane and laughable that it barely holds up under scrutiny, and page after page of silliness in the guise of humor, then this book may have hit its mark.
Set in a town called Beerlight, where there is so much crime that its denizens pay more attention to the stylishness of a crime than the crime itself, “private defective” (no, that’s not a typo) Taffy Atom is hired to track down the whereabouts of a brain (or “squashers” as they are called in this novel) stolen during a raid on the city’s Brain Facility. He’s aided by a partner, the mysterious Madison Drowner (who makes all the cool gadgets), and a modified sidekick that is a toothy fish. The brain, which turns out to be Kafka’s (for a series of silly puns on “Metamorphosis”), was hired by a local crimelord called the Candyman to be stolen by a mobster named Harry Fiasco. Harry Fiasco, though, is one of Eddie Thermidor’s boys, and tells his boss that he stole the brain for him. As the brain becomes “misplaced” throughout much of the book, the plot largely hinges around a cast of characters trying to discover who is double-crossing whom and why.
There are many problems with this book. Layer after layer of plot is discovered through dialog, great chunks of it being dropped into the text like huge blocks of semantic concrete; more often than not, the plot twists and turns only to serve its own internal sense of humor (for example, after Fiasco is caught, he is electrocuted; when this fails, another character confesses to one of Harry’s earlier crimes, stealing an apple, and Harry is freed because he no longer has “three strikes”). The action that does take place in the present is largely a series of comic events that do little to advance the story but seem to function as props for Aylett’s quirky sense of humor (he can go on for paragraphs describing the history of a line of fictitious guns). Every major event in the story, despite the author’s faux omniscient voice, is revealed when one character interviews another, a device that is extremely tiresome. The violence, for the most part, is over-the-top and cartoonish in nature, a milieu that becomes Other flaws include believability and continuity. For example, we discover late in the book that Candyman’s brain was switched with Kafka’s two hours after the heist. Yet for much of the book, Candyman maintains his own personality, and it is not until this twist in the plot is revealed that the author starts referring to Candyman as Kafka (or K, alternatively, as Kafka would refer to himself in his own work). At another point in the book we spend an entire chapter following a would-be assassin of Atom’s through half a year of being stuck in a cycling time bomb only to discover that this character is never heard from again; the action takes up again a few days after the bomb first goes off, making the entire chapter pointless.
This could have been an interesting book. Aylett’s imagination is about as creative as anyone’s in the business, and his ideas are fresh and full of potential. If only he had developed his characters and his story beyond the level of a cartoon and toned down the smug, smart-ass prose, this book could have gone somewhere. There are the makings of some truly interesting ideas (bombs that lock victims in time cycles; guns that fire on intuition, to name a few), but there are far too many cliches and downright silly prose for this novel to “mean” anything. Some may argue that Aylett’s style is the bizarre, the campy, the post-modern I-can-do-what-I-want, and without this quirkiness, much of the feel would be lost. This may be true, but often enough sloppy writing is written off as being post-modern because it doesn’t follow conventional writing rules. No one will remember this book five years from now, let alone the seventeen of Gibson’s.
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