It’s somehow reassuring to see some generational continuity made manifest in sf and fantasy. While sensibility evolves from decade to decade, talent will always out. Jeffrey Thomas’s collection of interrelated short fiction, Punktown, has the feel of a tradition in our field that’s spiraled down through such books as Martian Chronicles, Vermilion Sands, and Cinnabar. It’s the distinctively varied pattern generated by setting a variety of stories, populated by an equal diversity of characters, against a common landscape. In comics, in prose fiction, it’s a popular device. The nexus where everyone meets - or at least brushes shoulders, sometimes in fabulous ways. In noncategory American literature, the best example would be Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio.
In the titular Punktown of Thomas’s book, the location’s name is a corruption of Paxton. Paxton/Punktown is a loud, busy, polycultural, densely populated, futuristic city on a distant world. The immigrants from Earth pretty much run the show, though actual power is sometimes an ephemeral quality as humans interact with a variety of other intelligent species, not to mention the exploited and heavily discounted underclass of human clones.
The book starts with clones in the first of the included stories. ‘‘The Reflections of Ghosts’’ is one of the two reprints. There are seven original pieces here. Protagonist Drew is a not terribly respectable artist in this darkly rainswept, heavily noir city. His talent is to custom-fashion clones of himself. Some of his more outlandish variations Drew keeps at home for his own amusement. The rest are graymarket custom versions commissioned by wealthy clients. When Drew finds one of his own clones dead in the street near his home, he’s more intrigued than disturbed. His first impulse is to improve on circumstance by moving the body to a more artistically dramatic location.
Is Drew a nice guy? Hardly. Years and many commissions for clones to be put to truly abominable use by cash-and-carry clients have forced the artist to a safe distance from his creations. But then he creates a female clone of himself -and falls prey to the impulse to enter into a relationship. What ensues is tragically doomed from the beginning, but Drew pursues his Frankensteinian course until the bitter end. In truth, the end is more melancholy than bitter.
‘‘The Flaying Season’’ presents coffee house proprietor Kohl, a woman beginning to founder in loneliness and indecision until she connects with a story collection by the 20th Century writer Mishima. She’s intrigued, [space] then obsessed. From the standpoint of sentiment, it’s not a pretty sight. From the vantage of hard reality, what then happens carries an aura of grim inevitability.
Likewise the Asian-descended homicide cop in ‘‘Wakizashi’’ who, in trying to work out a multicultural conundrum of murder and sacrifice among aliens, finds a wholly appropriate way to pass his ancestral family sword along to a worthy recipient.
In ‘‘The Palace of Nothingness’’ and ‘‘The Library of Sorrows’’ the infinite mutability of memory is exacerbated through VR technology and brain-controlling chips. ‘‘Immolation’’ presents the beginnings of clone rebellion. The plot-lines may suggest fairly orthodox science fiction gimmicky. That’s not at all the true dark heart of Punktown.
The author appears quite deliberately to mix highly specific details from our here-and-now cultural clutter (Burl Ives holiday recordings, malls with Starbucks clones, references to Wizard of Oz and other pop films) and overlay them against a strange and manic future world. Sometimes jarring, it’s still a lovely and effective collage effect.
And perhaps this is the clearest instance of sf timebinding. Thomas is expert at using the tropes of the familiar to generate strange new next-generation effects. In ‘‘Face,’’ the parents of a profoundly crippled five-year-old son, one of the few medical victims who can’t be repaired by cutting-edge technology, are obliged to deal - and for a while, not to deal - with their offspring’s terminal decline. It’s a story told in all too human terms, but with the gain control gradually turned up to 9, or perhaps 10. All through Punktown, science fiction conventions are well-integrated to add a bit of objective distance and then to serve as both reflecting and refracting devices to focus the image.
In other words, the reader absorbs the narrative here, reassured that there’s a comfortable distance lent by the sf settings and images; then the icewater-in-the-marrow feeling creeps up as the stories make it clear that there’s no distance here at all.
The personality kinks, the love and the lust, the fear and the brutality, the skewed hope, it’s all real. Right there in your face, both externally and inside. Once again, reality has coasted through enemy lines on that original stealth transport, metaphor. This is good, ambitious fiction clothed in a coat of many spectral shifts.
As something of a bonus with the collection, cover artist H.E. Fassl contributes a short essay describing the generation and execution of the jacket art. The artist’s own analysis is as head-spinning as the accompanying fiction.
All in all, Punktown is a quick, sharp, shock to the reading list that demands attention. It’s smart, fun, edgy, and it’s bound for the best-of-the-year recommended lists.