The OF Blog: Jeffrey Thomas, Deadstock

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Jeffrey Thomas, Deadstock

There were neighborhoods in the city of
Paxton where the police did not readily go—if at
all. Tin Town, for instance, orWarehouseWay; the
former given over mostly to mutants and the latter
to squatters in its nominal disused warehouses.
Sometimes fires in such regions were even left to
burn themselves out, despite the fact that the city
firefighting units were mostly automated in nature. (p. 9)
This opener to Jeffrey Thomas' latest Punktown novel, Deadstock, sets the mood for what follows over the course of 400 pages. A nasty, almost lawless place, filled with the lower classes, many of them mutants and other assorted riff-raff. A place where danger lurks. Right away, the reader knows that something dark is about to happen; not too many cheery stories are set in what amounts to a slum.

Punktown is a strange place, a human colony built on the remains of an alien city. As I read this novel, my first extended exposure to Thomas' Punktown universe, there was this sense of creepiness, as its denizens were introduced. Moreover, the atmosphere was much like a noir thriller and soon enough, the story that emerged after the brutal prologue shared much of that atmosphere, if not so much the hard-boiled detective atmosphere.

The basic story is a rather straightforward one: a priceless bio-engineered doll is stolen from a girl. One of the girl's classmates is suspected, but she too has disappeared. Both girls' fathers are rival geneticists. One of them hires a shape-shifting ex-soldier, Jeremy Stake, to track down the doll's whereabouts and to report his findings.

But there are many, many layers wrapped around this core. In the Prologue, someone seemingly unconnected with the disappearing doll meets a rather grisly end. There is a mystery surrounding the technology involved in making that bio-engineered doll. And through it all, we learn of a deeper struggle that has gone on in various places and dimensions, something that feels quite a bit like something that Lovecraft would have concocted for one of his tales.

This is but a very brief bit describing the type of story Thomas tells here. A multi-layered detective/horror story, however, can take on many flavors, but to discuss the story in detail risks breaking the plot skeins into fragments that do not add up to the whole. However, I do want to highlight a few images that showcase Thomas' ability to create an odd and rather creepy atmosphere:

“Burikko suru” was the Japanese expression for
this popular look. It meant, “to fake-child it.”
His client’s daughter and her three schoolmates
were sixteen years old—Jeremy Stake knew that
part already—but they all seemed shorter perhaps
than they should have been, not even five feet tall,
as if they had willed themselves to remain so petite
in order to further their cute and child-like appearance.
Stake wondered if they had undergone some
process that, at least temporarily, would suppress
their height to engender this effect.
They all had the same figure, too, as far as he
could make out: slender, delicate, with coltish legs.
The legs were particularly noticeable, because as
part of their uniforms they wore very short, pleated
tartan skirts in black and gray with a touch of
blue. Their trim blazers were black, with their private
school’s crest emblazoned in metallic gold and
blue thread. They wore white blouses and blue
“Hello, mister—I’m Yuki,” said one of the four
girls, smiling shyly, blinking her long lashes under
a mathematically straight fringe of bangs.
He could already tell she was Yuki, because she
was the only one without a kawaii-doll. Despite
the sameness of their uniforms and bodies, there
were small touches of individuality about the four
friends (but if one looked at all the girls from their
school, one would no doubt see these individual
touches widely repeated). One girl wore white
ankle socks. Another wore very baggy knee-high
white socks, bunched up in folds that contrasted in
an interesting way with her smooth brown thighs.
Another wore knee-high white stockings that
instead clung tightly to her calves. Yuki wore socks
like these, but hers were a deep navy blue color. (p. 23-24)
When I read this scene, I began to get the idea that genetics and the various manipulative possibilities of the gene code would take center stage. This notion of bio-altered girls and this sort of plastic uniformity about them only set the stage for later appearances by the menial-labor clones and the headless/limbless "deadstock" grown in vats rather than raised as truly alive beings. Thomas sets the stage well with this and the sense of revulsion and of apprehension created by such descriptions foreshadows the later plot developments, when questions of sentience and of "sentient rights" (for lack of a better term to describe the myriad self-aware entities that appear here) arise from a closer reading of the action.

Action, however, takes precedence over any symbolic reading of the events and people in the novel. Stake, while his conflicted personality and troubled past makes for an intriguing tale (one to be covered in Thomas' upcoming Blue War novel), does much more than just engage in a mental problem-solving exercise. The rival geneticists control gangs in Punktown and there are shootouts and quite graphic deaths. The plot moves at a brisk pace, as mystery after mystery is presented, only to be solved near the end of the novel. The early events of the Prologue loop back into the main story to create a fast-paced thriller type of feel, albeit one with a bit more brains behind the plot's brawn. The conclusion is mostly satisfactory, although it is quite obvious that room has been left for sequels.

Deadstock is not the deepest of novels; it does not spend much time pondering the mysteries of existence. However, it does contain some rather unsettling pieces that when considered afterwards, can add a tinge of unease to the reader's understanding of what is transpiring in this setting outside of this particular tale. Although doubtless my experience would have been enhanced if I had read Thomas' earlier Punktown novels, Deadstock works well on its own. I found Thomas' prose to be to the point, always driving the plot and the action forward, but at the same time adding just enough hints and clues here and there to make me aware that something much more vast than this relatively simple story is transpiring. The characterization was pretty good and Jeremy Stake makes for a compelling character. While I do believe that the story would have been stronger if Thomas had fleshed out the other characters, especially the one that appears in the closing scenes and is the source of the disappearances, on the whole it works as an atmospheric, dark detective novel. I certainly shall be reading more of Thomas' work in the future. Recommended.

Publication Date: February 27, 2007 (US), Paperback; January 25, 2008 as a free e-book

Publisher: Solaris Books


Robert said...

I just finished writing a review for "Blue War" last week. It will be interesting to see what you think of that book, since I thought it was quite different from "Deadstock" despite the same setting and returning characters in Jeremy & Thi. Some things I were disappointed in between the two, but ultimately I ended liking "Blue War" more...

Larry Nolen said...

I'd have to get a contact with Solaris first and request a copy, as I am spending no money on books until I have a good-paying job again with benefits. I've heard that it's different and that it might be disappointing in many ways, but good to hear that you enjoyed it more :D

Robert said...

Yeah, get in touch with Mark Newton from Solaris. He would be more than happy to hook you up with "Blue War" and any other titles you're interested in :)

What I liked about "Deadstock" was that it was all over the place. I mean, there were elements of cyberpunk, detective noir, Lovecraftian horror, etc. It was basically, a pretty crazy ride and I had a blast with that. "Blue War" is more clear-cut. Yes, there's a mystery at the heart of the story, and cyberpunk flourishes, but for the most part, the book is a straight-ahead sci-fi thriller. Most disappointing for me, was that there were very little horror elements and it seemed like the book's violence/language was toned down.

On the flipside, the book is much deeper thematically, including a powerful love story and the cultural clashes involved, a lot of parallels to the Middle East/Vietnam wars, and identity, which seems to be the main theme. Plus, I thought the writing was stronger...

Larry Nolen said...

OK, I'll send an email to him shortly then.

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