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Monday, April 30, 2007

"Deadstock" by Jeffrey Thomas


After finishing Jeffrey Thomas’Deadstock” I can see why it was one of the feature titles for the launching of new publisher Solaris Books, an imprint of BL Publishing focusing on releasing a diverse mixture of SF & fantasy. Dubbed a Punktown novel, “Deadstock” is set in the same universe that was first introduced in Jeffrey Thomas’ short stories collection “Punktown” (2000), and further established in the novels “Monstrocity” (2003) & “Everybody Scream!” (2005) as well as the recent collection “PUNKTOWN: Shades of Grey” (2006) written with brother Scott Thomas.

As a backdrop, Punktown immediately evokes shades of Philip K. Dick – think a cross between Blade Runner and Total Recall – with an interesting mélange of cyberpunk dystopia, neo-noir vibe, mutants, Japanese cultural influences and themes involving technological ethics & what’s real vs. what’s not. Toss in virtual reality, cloning and various other familiar concepts, and you might think that you’ve seen this all before. That’s when Jeffrey Thomas throws you a curveball with multiple alien races cohabitating alongside humans, alternate dimensions, bio-engineered life forms (BELFs) like the Blank People, the trendy Kawaii-dolls, deadstock – genetically manipulated livestock without unnecessary appendages like heads, tales, hooves, etc. – and Ouija phones that allow users to communicate with the dead, not to mention flavored Lovecraftian-spiced deities, cults & other horror elements, and it’s apparent that you’ve stumbled onto something a little bit different. Of course, this is only a good thing, and because Jeffrey Thomas has spent a lot of time developing the world, Punktown feels like a fully realized universe rather than a caricature of mish mashed ideas.

Story wise, “Deadstock” follows private investigator Jeremy Stake, a Blue War veteran and Caro turbida mutant who possesses the ability to assume the face of whoever he studies. Initially hired out by the Fukudas to recover a lost Kawaii-doll, Stake eventually gets caught up in a much larger plotline that involves missing girls, possible murder, competing bio-engineering companies, buried secrets, alien DNA, and a whole lot more. Along the way, we’ll get to revisit Stake’s past during the Blue War against the Ha Jinn, and how it catches up with him in unexpected ways in the present. Meanwhile, we’ll also get the perspectives of two street gangs – the Folger Street Snarlers and the Tin Town Terata – and how they and an abandoned apartment complex fit into the puzzle as well as a homeless person trying to discover his identity. As far as stories go, “Deadstock" is a fun one to experience. There’s lots of action to visualize, far-fetched futuristic concepts to think about, mysteries to try and solve, somewhat startling revelations, and enough sex, violence & profanity to appease your darker side.

Going back to the characters, Jeremy Stake is an intriguing protagonist. Because of his chameleon-like abilities, Stake immediately offers some interesting moral dilemmas regarding identity, which is explored sexually and spiritually. Yet, aside from this one distinguishing feature Stake is your prototypical, flawed hero plagued by the past. Regarding the street gangs’ narrative, instead of the strict third-person point of view that Stake offers, we get a group perspective that seemingly jumps from one character to the next with no discernible pattern. At first, I found this a bit confusing, but it gets easier to follow as the book progresses, though this type of narrating prevents character development, which is a major problem with the street gang members & supporting role players, and is what I would consider to be the primary issue with the book. As far as the rest of the writing, Jeffrey Thomas’ prose is competent enough moving the book along at a fast pace and showing fairly good command of the story, though it does suffer in certain areas like setup, thematic exploration and an anticlimactic payoff. So overall, the writing may not be spectacular, but for the most part it works.

Since I wasn’t familiar with Jeffrey Thomas’ works, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into with “Deadstock” and I was pleasantly surprised by how much fun I had with the world of Punktown. Sure, the book has its share of problems and I can’t tell you if it’s any better or worse than his previous material, but I enjoyed “Deadstock” enough that I’m interested in checking out Jeffrey Thomas’ other Punktown tales including the short story “In His Sights” (included in The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction featuring Neal Asher, Peter F Hamilton, Stephen Baxter, Jay Lake, etc.), which features Jeremy Stake as well as the forthcoming follow-up novel to “Deadstock” called “Blue War”, also starring Stake. In short, if you like your science fiction crossed with horror, full of action & demented imagination, and reads quickly, then Jeffrey Thomas’Deadstock” might just be up your alley…

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