Jeffrey Thomas,
(Ministry of Whimsy Press, 2000)

Jeffrey Thomas, an American writer of numerous dark fantasy and horror short stories, takes a new approach in this just published collection of nine interrelated tales of "slipstream" SF, seven of which have never appeared anywhere else before.

Punktown, the colloquial name for the city formally called Paxton, is located on a distant planet where human beings are only one species among a whole gamut of alien sentients, all intermingling their cultures and conflicts. Darker than most SF but not without ingenious touches of macabre ironic humor, the stories deal with familiar SF tropes: cloning, the impact of technology on artwork, issues of crime and punishment in the future and, when dealing with entirely alien cultures, the challenges people meet and fail to meet.

Thomas has a very elegant, poetic style, evoking a phantasmagorical urban setting seething with life and activity as a parade of eccentric, vivid and memorable characters of all manners and types, from all strata of society -- artists, criminals, robots and clones -- swarm through Punktown's dank and threatening streets -- all with their own enigmatic agendas. Although the denouements are often the consequences of plots that involve elements that are grotesque and even horrifying, the stories always offer thoughtful and insightful explorations of the inherent struggles of human beings as they cope with serious issues of art and life, of misdeeds and consequences, of memory and identity.

The stories "The Reflections of Ghosts" and "Heart for Hearts Sake" are superb depictions of the lives and feelings of artists as they struggle to achieve recognition for their work, with the second tale mentioned being the most overtly satirical and upbeat in the book and my personal favorite. Thomas, in these two pieces, cleverly invents whole new science fictional uses for advanced biological and computerized tech for creative expression. "The Flaying Season" is a chilling portrait of the disintegration of an alienated woman's personality after painful memories have been excised from her mind by a high technology device. "The Library of Sorrows" is also about using high tech to deliberately alter the way the brain's memory functions, this time with a male protagonist (a detective who wants to erase painful recollections from his mind) while he struggles to accept that his mother has senile dementia and is dying in a nursing home.

"Wakizashi" is about a cultural conflict in prison as inmates of various sentient races seek a resolution to highly different concepts of just retribution while the human guard futilely strives to mediate. In "Precious Metal," human and AI-robot musicians literally war over whether the constructs' performances are legitimate artistic expressions. "Precious Metal," like "Face" and "Immolation," uses the Christmas season and its artificially generated cheer as a sardonic backdrop for tragic events: a father goes violently berserk over the death of his son from congenital defects, his religious beliefs forbidding abortion in "Face," while in "Immolation," a genetically engineered slave laborer attempts a futile and fatal revolt against the corporation that expoits him. "The Palace of Nothingness" features a real estate investigator discovering a strangely elusive structure that might be a bizarre alien sapient that assumes the shape of an abandoned building to feed on vagrants seeking refuge.

These capsule descriptions of the contents of Punktown barely begin to convey the dazzlingly intricate and detailed future visions in the stories within -- for all of them mingle humans and non-human intelligences in bizarre-tech scenarios rendered in gorgeous prose rich in poetically intense images and emotions and insights that etch themselves in the mind in a way that will linger long in the memory. Pay a visit to Punktown -- its definitely a trip -- challenging, not for the squeamish -- but so worthwhile, you won't regret it!

Ministry of Whimsy Press, known for its willingness to publish quirky, artistic explorations of the extreme boundaries of genre fiction that might not be considered commercial enough by the conglomerate-dominated publishers, is to be congratulated for making such an unusual collection as Punktown available.

[ by Amy Harlib ]

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