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Cyber Circus

I don't suppose I would ever have read Kim Lakin-Smith's Cyber Circus if I hadn't met its lovely author at BristolCon this autumn, because I had seen it described here and there as 'Steampunk', and assumed it would be yet more alternate-Victoriana japes, of which I've read (and written) enough.  Actually it's something far richer and rarer.

According to the subtitle at the start of Chapter One, Cyber Circus is set in 1937 in a place called Sore Earth.  That date, and the fact that the Sore Earthers' agricultural boo-boos have reduced their topsoil to dust, suggests that the story evolved out of reflections on the Dustbowl (a suggestion confirmed by the earlier short story Black Sunday, reprinted at the back of this volume), while the book's vision of carnival life carries faint echoes of Tod Brownings Freaks and Daniel P Mannix's Memoirs of a Sword Swallower.  But there any connection with our reality ends.  This is not any 1937 we recognise, and Sore Earth isn't some parallel Oklahoma but a fully fledged fantasy world with its own loosely-sketched geography, history and fauna. Above it cruises 'Cyber Circus', a bizarre, bio-engineered, living dirigible carrying a strange crew of mutants and outcasts.  The towns at which they stop to stage their shows have a whiff of the wild west about them - scabby mining outposts ruled by violent men and inhabited by the sort of people who'd have been kicked out of Deadwood for being too scruffy and sweary.  Several different nations are mentioned, all unfamiliar.  As far as I could tell, Sore Earth could be another planet, albeit one with retro fashion-sense.  At times, with its cast of whores, misfits and former soldiers the thing it resembled most was a darker-hearted Firefly.

Kim Lakin-Smith's prose is both stripped-down and florid, shot through with gnarly hard-boiled dialogue and vivid imagery.  It takes a little getting used to, but it's well worth the effort.  I admired the uncompromising freakishness of her freaks - the bioluminescent heroine and the hero with his cybernetic eye are quite ordinary compared to the pig man, the feral wolf girl and the scuttler children - and the empathy she makes us feel for them, strange and ugly as they might seem at first meeting.  She has the courage, too, to make her characters unlikeable - spiky, ill-tempered, selfish, cowardly - and yet still sympathetic.  The story moves fast and takes some curious twists and turns on its way to a dramatic final showdown.

So Cyber Circus is definitely some kind of 'punk': violent, grungy, transgressive and bristling with attitude.  Compared with it, most Steampunk that I've read needs to be reclassified as 'Steam-Easy-Listening' or Steam-Middle-of-the-Road'.  But actually trying to pin down books like this to a particular sub-genre is just geeky stamp-collecting: Steampunk?  Deiselpunk? New Weird? Who cares?  There are only two kinds of Sci-Fi/Fantasy books: good and bad.  Cyber Circus is one of the good ones.

Philip Reeve.

Cyber Circus is published by Newcon Press, price £9.99 pb, and is available from their website.

You can meet Kim Lakin-Smith (and me!) in person at the Kitschies 'Steampunk Christmas' event on the 8th December at Blackwell's Bookshop, Charing Cross Road, London.


Cary Watson said...

I've followed several of your recommendations in the past with good results so I'll give this a try. I've started reading more sci-fi/fantasy in the last few years in large part thanks to the Mortal Engines quartet, which renewed my taste for imaginative literature. Along the way I've found that Brit writers are the best in this field, and here's my theory why: it's all down to Dr. Who. Generations of kids in the UK have been addicted to a show that goes out of its way to mashup any and all combinations of science, horror, mystery, fantasy, adventure and humour in the most imaginative ways possible. How can that not have been an influence? There's never been any equivalent show here in North America. I recently read books by two UK writers, Ben Aaronovitch and Mike Carey, that show a Dr. Who willingness to try anything imaginative as long as it's adventurous and fun. Both writers have created an alternate reality London in which ghosts and various supernatural nogoodniks make life difficult for the citizenry. Aaronovitch's book, Rivers of London, has a cop as the hero, while Carey's, The Devil You Know, has a private eye. I've got reviews of them at my own blog,

philip reeve said...

Thanks Cary, I'm glad the recommendations have proved useful. You're probably right about 'Dr Who' being a big influence, though of course 'Dr Who' itself is part of an older tradition of British sci-fi/fantasy/adventure writing; Nigel Kneale's 'Quatermass' serials, 'The Avengers', Sherlock Holmes etc. I'm off to have a look at now...

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