Titan, 2014, 336 p. Reviewed for Interzone 253, Jul-Aug 2014.
Koko Martstellar, a former mercenary for big corporations, is now running a brothel and bar on the artificially constructed pleasure archipelago the Sixty Islands, a complex under the auspices of the Custom Pleasure Bureau. When she kills two customers who have stepped out of line it triggers her former superior, Portia Delacompte, Vice President of the Bureau, who has undergone Selective Memory Treatment to allow her to attain membership of that organisation’s board, to seek her arrest, which Koko violently resists. Koko had assumed Delacompte’s patronage would protect her but she now has to flee to the Second Free Zone, a collection of sky barges and arks in low Earth orbit. There follows a pretty standard tale of flight, pursuit by bounty hunters and indiscriminate mayhem.
Crucially, to this reader at any rate, Koko’s predicament was not enough to justify her actions hence from the outset her outlook on life does not engage sympathy.
On the barge Alaungpaya in the Zone Koko meets and teams up with Jedidiah Flynn, an ex-cop, who has been forced to resign as he is suffering from a disease known as Depressus, whose victims, supposedly to avoid them disrupting daily life by random acts of suicide, are required to immolate themselves in a ritual known as Embrace. On Alaungpaya, they throw themselves off the ship to death. All other activities on the ship stop for the process. (Logan’s Run anyone?)
An authorial interjection after the info dump on Depressus gives a flavour of the overall narrative tone, “Ah Depressus. Quite the bitch but it sure does thin the herd.” This is only one example of many off-key notes scattered throughout the book beginning with the infantilised “boywhores” of Koko’s brothel who – for no good reason, except perhaps authorial contempt – speak in pidgin.
The story is set in the 2500s but Shea’s imagined future doesn’t really feel all that futuristic. It does though resemble what might be imagined as a gun-lover’s ideal universe. Flynn reflects on “the added benefit of having a gun on you is people tend to give you a wide berth and show you some respect.” (Of that contention only the wide berth bit might be true.) Delacompte has “nearly forgotten the sublime buoyancy of taking a human life – the confident rush of power,” and in this unpleasant vision of a future shorn of anything akin to politeness or consideration for others, the mercenaries and the bounty hunters drawn from their former ranks take trophies from their victims in a particularly vile manner.
The story is mostly told in short chapters in the present tense. This ought to impart a sense of immediacy but in Shea’s hands falls curiously flat. The one incident which is rendered in past tense is narrated in third person despite supposedly being told by Koko to Flynn. Koko’s expressed revulsion at the crime Delacompte committed is unbelievable here, being totally contrary to the attitudes she has shown up to the point that crime is revealed to the reader.
Most of the info dumping is expressed through supposed newsfeed extracts or adverts for the Sixty Islands and elsewhere is crudely executed. Lazy or unconvincing passages abound. “Luckily for Koko, the building’s architectural design included great bulging bars on each terrace, presenting her with easy leaps between floors.” “Frantically, Delacompte windmills her arms in an effort to forward the last of her momentum. It seems almost to the very last second that she has completely miscalculated her impromptu gymnastics and she’ll now plummet backwards to an ungracious and stupid death. However, her balance steadies and her weight shifts forward. Her hands reach out and grab hold of a coarse edge of sectioned seam in front of her eyes. Delacompte lets out a titter of relief.” (The discerning reader might just titter.) Not one, but two chapters begin, redundantly, with “meanwhile”. And Flynn’s Depressus evaporates rather easily.
Quite what is the purpose of this story is obscure. It fails to illustrate human nature, beyond revelling in that of the conscienceless, murderous psychopath, and seems designed to bolster the thesis that the only means to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. But our putative heroine Koko is not one of the good guys; violence is her first resort, not her last. If it is meant as entertainment Koko ought to have a more cogent reason for her actions than merely that she has the means to achieve them. Nor can it be taken as satire. Shea’s tone is too approving for that. This whole farrago reads as nothing but an extended piece of weapons porn.
The following entries for Pedant’s Corner did not appear in the published review:-
“lay low” for lie low x 2, “sublimal” for subliminal, “coporate” for corporate, “sizzle” for fizz, “smoothes” for smooths, “caloric” for calorific, “hocks” instead of hawks phlegm, meaningless for meaninglessness, legs akimbo – legs can not be akimbo – “copasetic” for copacetic, veritable.