Monday 25 July 2016


(July 2016)

The first of Womack’s Dryco series, or at least the first one he wrote. Ambient is the book to which Random Acts of Senseless Violence serves as a prequel, and while that story described polite society’s shockingly rapid descent into dystopia, the one we’re talking about here gives us the shit show already in full effect.
This is both good and bad. Part of me wishes I’d read the books in their published order, because the (re)appearance of ‘Crazy Lola’ is, in the context of having got to know and care about her over the course of Random Acts, absolutely heartrending, and all the more so because I didn’t twig as to who it really was until long after the fact. On the upside, however, is almost everything else, most notably the full flowering of Lola’s street-slang dialect across an entire community. While O’Malley, the narrator, has his own very well realised idiolect, the titular Ambient counterculture he mixes with uses a mode of speech that is even more stylized. It’s not especially easy to read, but compensates for its distortion of syntax with pure, unabashed lyricism.

Ruben shook his head, tossing his cigarette to his mouth with a quick flip of his chin. “To sight your ragged puss in glory grand,” he laughed, “to taunt your mind with apish tricks.”

I don’t know for sure, but I dearly hope these particular lines are a riff on God Save the Queen.

Ambient is set a little further into the future then Random Acts. We’re still “within our lifetimes”, but things have advanced enough to move the genre beyond simple dystopia. We could file this under cyberpunk; it’s certainly got that juxtaposition of extremes thing going on, in addition to the requisite future tech and belated appearance of an all-powerful AI. The plot—oligarch’s bodyguard and mistress plot to assassinate their master and then deal with the fallout of their hastily improvised plans—is essentially an excuse to take us on a walking tour of a New York all fucked three times sideways. The necessary tropes are all here: untouchable elites enjoying ring-fenced opulence, unwashed masses toiling in poverty, quasi-spiritual underground movements, corrupt military-industrial establishment, high-tech body mods, hookers, pushers, madness, and despair. It’s a huge amount of fun.

I mean that honestly. A while back, while reviewing the frankly weak Haw for Strange Horizons, I saw fit to name drop Jack Womack as a nod to how dystopian urban decay should be done (which, to be honest, was just a happy byproduct of wanting to both reference a genuinely effective queer-teen-led dystopia, and to make a cheap gag on the title of Random Acts). It’s therefore very reassuring to have that assessment borne out here, because if what marked Haw (and, for me, irreparably damaged it) was its unrelenting, po-faced earnestness, one of the defining features of Ambient is its humour. It’s a humour as dark as lung cancer, for sure, and so probably not to everyone’s taste, but it’s definitely there and, more importantly, it serves the vital purpose of defining the artifice of the book.

What I mean by this is that, while Haw often came across as a hectoring lecture about how shitty the world is, Ambient presents itself as a satire on the way the world could be. It’s the difference between a skillfully grotesque caricature and one of those appalling political cartoons at which the Americans seem to specalise, wherein every object and person is given an explicit label lest the reader miss the sledgehammer subtle point; the former is obviously aware of the absurdity of its exaggerations and its reasons for deploying them, while the latter is aiming for a sort of allegorical mimesis, or at least an honesty on its own terms, and missing woefully. It’s also bleakly hilarious, if the concepts of Elvis as Jesus and orphan duck hunts float your boat.

Britain was in good form; under the guidance of King Charles—presently occupying himself buying horses in Kentucky—and the National Front, unemployment was down to 80 percent.

See? Both absurd—if only because what self-respecting authoritarian government would let those sorts of figures out without cooking them more thoroughly first?—and also just prescient enough to cause some nervous twitches of recognition.

As it was Womack’s debut novel, it’s inevitably a little ragged around the edges. The plot is pretty cursory, even if that isn’t really the point; sundry other characterization issues could have stood some tightening up; and for all the beauty of the street dialect it’s not as consistently well-executed as it could (and later is) have been. But this is all countered by the grim joy and sheer verve with which he sets up and demolishes his world and the people in it. The dead tree versions of the Dryco series in its entirety appear to be out of print, but they are all available through the Gollancz SF Gateway. While I’m still not a whole-hearted convert to digital publishing, the potential for accessing otherwise unobtainable backlist books such as these is a key argument in its favour. Recommended.

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