Steve Aylett,
(Phoenix House/Orion &
Four Walls Eight Windows, 2000)

British author Steve Aylett, known for "slipstream" or avante-garde SF in five previous novels, has a reputation for outrageousness. Atom, his most recent novel, definitely lives up to expectations.

The protagonist, Taffy Atom, is a private detective of an unconventional and eccentric sort -- with a sidekick who's even weirder: Jed Helms, who has a voraciously vicious human personality somehow grafted onto a souped-up brain in the body of a giant goldfish! The near-future setting, as in Aylett's novel Slaughtermatic, is the city of Beerlight which "sprawls like roadkill." The plot is a bit thin -- but then the book is only 137 pages long -- and takes Atom on a mission to trace a missing brain (belonging to Tony Curtis), which vanished the night the City Brain Facility blew up. A motley crew of bizarre gangsters will do anything to see that Atom, his gorgeous, smart and tough girlfriend Madison Drowner, and Jed Helms don't succeed.

Reading Aylett is not reading for depth of character, intense emotional subtlety or intricate background descriptions -- rather, it's like reading a manic anime noir where the imagery dominates -- stark and startling, with satirically over-the-top metaphors abounding and the pacing lightening-swift, cutting from one scene to the next almost too fast to follow. Yet the language is so clever and witty that the reader is only too happy to go along for the mad car-chase of a ride in order to encounter bits like this: "Industrial gothic was tempered by Bren Shui, the art of exchanging negative energy with the environment through the correct placement of firearms around the house." Laugh-out-loud moments of this sort are to be found on practically every page of Atom, for Aylett definitely delivers outrageousness.

Everything in the book is extreme, bordering on caricature: Atom, the ultimate cynical, wise guy gumshoe; Madison, the smart-mouthed babe; Jed Helms, surreal and bizarre; Joanna, the hulking, amusingly dumb henchman, that's right, man; and then there's the fiendish mastermind behind it all, Candyman, not to mention a whole bevy of colorful supporting characters. Everyone talks in the snappy patter of the author's slangy dialogue (warning -- contains curse words), voices that dominate the text and propel the story.

Atom is wild and crazy and funny, replete with satirical allusions to much of contemporary and current pop-cultural trends -- all extrapolated to the mind-stretching max. For a high energy romp, Atom is hard to beat!

[ by Amy Harlib ]

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