No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Wednesday, November 15, 2000

Atom -- Steve Aylett

"The city sprawled like roadkill, spreading more with each new pressure. A grey rain slicked Campag Street - cars slewed through smoke and collided with pieces of the Brain Facility. Little flames dotted the rubble like Zippos in a darkened stadium…"

Welcome to Beerlight, Steve Aylett's cyber-noir vision of a near-future metropolis with a comic-book aesthetic and a cartoon morality. Down these mean streets a man must walk: meet Taffy Atom, whose card reads 'Private Defective' - and that may not be a typo. Atom is the naked detective, with mysterious origins and ambiguous motives: occasionally he dons a huge black coat and plays shamanistic clarinet at the Creosote Club. His business partner, Madison Drowner, upholds the tradition of the smart, mouthy babe who can look after herself and take care of any trouble-makers, whilst mixing a mean cocktail and creating psychoactive weaponry (rather like Gibson's Chrome). Atom's security consists of Jed Helms, whose human head has apparently been grafted onto the body of a bulldog-sized fish:
    "What kind of goldfish is that? It's a monster!"
    … the fish snarled, "Define your terms, meathead."
    Joanna's bulk wired with shock. "It's talkin' semantics!"
Add a selection of stock characters from the golden age of cinema - criminal masterminds, dumb bodyguards, blandly perfect blondes - and mix in a generous measure of post-modern irony and a few SFnal devices, and you'll have Atom.

In fact, there's something very cinematic about Atom. At 137 pages - more of a novella than a novel - there's little space for much in the way of plot development. Elaborate metaphors and slick, accomplished prose adorn (or obscure?) a fragmentary plot, the main strand of which concerns the theft, pursuit and recovery of Kafka's brain, stolen from the City Brain Facility by the scheming Candyman. Lightning-fast cuts from scene to scene, and from tableau to action, heighten the noir effect. Blade Runner set standards for the look and feel of futuristic urban noir: it's a setting into which Atom fits neatly, albeit with a satirical Western flavour.

Slaughtermatic, Aylett's previous excursion into Beerlight (he also writes contemporary crime) succeeded because of a serendipitous match of plot and style. It was a stylish take on the old time-travel paradox about travelling back in time and meeting yourself: what if you shoot that self? Atom, less narrative-driven, elevates style over substance to a degree that will confound the traditional reader. That said, this novel has the charm of a superbly-crafted animé film, though perhaps one without subtitles.

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