The Ministry of Whimsy, publishers of Stepan Chapman's mightily impressive, Philip K Dick Award-winning The Troika, have done it again. Jeffrey Thomas's Punktown, a collection of stories set in the colony town of Paxton -- affectionately known by residents as 'Punktown' -- is a seriously sleek and stylish piece of work. Noir fiction close to its best.
Thomas is a master at crafting atmosphere in his writing, -- in the loving portrayals of his fictional town in all its seedy glory, and in the way he uses the mood he creates around his characters and their dilemmas to subtly subvert the reader's expectations.
This is perhaps most apparent in the final story, "Library of Sorrows" (available elsewhere in infinity plus). What opens as a straightforward police procedural -- albeit one featuring bizarre aliens and even more bizarre murders (we open with a living room full of mounted skulls, and move into another room where naked corpses are suspended with their heads buried in the strange substance of the ceiling) -- smoothly sidesteps expectations and becomes an intense, personal tale of loss and decisions and anomie, as the investigating cop comes to terms with the curse of perfect memory. This story, like Punktown itself, may appear to be many things, carrying with it the trappings of the horror, sf and crime genres, yet it is all of these and more, with expectations confounded in fresh and inspiring ways.
The author is a master of openings and neat hooks, too. Early in the opening story, "Reflections of Ghosts": "It was a nice setting for the corpse; a quiet street, a lonely street. As lonely a street as anything could hope to die in." Instantly, we know where we are: the kind of dark streets haunted by PIs and gangsters. But as ever with Thomas, such expectations are quickly undermined and we are led into the story of an artist who works in three very biological dimensions, and into contemplations of the relationship between artist and art when that art has been sold -- made all the more personal when that art is a part of the artist... Like some of the best sf, these stories take big questions and use the exaggerations and extrapolations of genre to examine them in new ways.
Another great opening in "Wakizashi": "On the walls of the L'lewed's cell were blown up photo print-outs of his three victims." A single sentence, a scattering of words, and you're in the thick of it. An alien ambassador, imprisoned for murder, wants to kill again, but this time through the proper channels... Again: a big question that could easily have been explored in the terms of so-called mainstream fiction, yet Jeffrey Thomas uses the tools of genre to open it up for questioning: how do you formulate laws and moral norms in a city crammed with jostling cultures and species from across dimensions? This superb story of honour shows exactly how morals and ethics apply: in individual acts and choices.
And the aforementioned "Library of Sorrows" has one of the best opening lines in detective fiction: "Nothing a murderer could tell MacDiaz in interview revealed so much as the decor of their apartment, he had found."
So: big questions, stunning openings, subversions, atmosphere. What that doesn't convey is the excellent crafting of these stories, the mastery of the form Jeffrey Thomas has acquired. Individually, the stories range from the merely decent (the striking but slightly ponderous "Immolation") to the excellent ("Wakishazi"; "Reflections of Ghosts"; "Precious Metal", a gentle Christmas tale of inter-species gang warfare which displays Thomas's craft at its best).
Collectively? It's a slim volume, and by the end I was left feeling that perhaps there should have been more to it. Punktown is a city rich with exotic and wondrous alien life, but this is a very human take on it: the stories are about humans, or transformed humans, and often their main interactions are with other humans. It's a genre thing, I suppose: the aliens are just part of the backdrop, more often than not, and we only ever come close to them at one remove.
But then... perhaps that's a strength of the book, too. The reader's experience of Punktown is close to that of a human inhabitant: living there, mixing with your own kind, occasionally encountering the alien and having to make moral and intellectual adjustments to the exotic. It's hard to judge whether this was a deliberate effect or merely a consequence of an author writing individual stories rather than a collection of stories. And it's hard to balance the unmet hopes of the reader who wanted to know more with the vérité of a denizen's view of a city that is, quite simply, a remarkable place.
Punktown is a striking collection that stylishly sidesteps the reader's expectations, but just possibly it could have been more than it ultimately proves to be. It is an elusive portrait of a town where we are still strangers, both convincing and just a little disappointing in the way it only affords a narrow perspective on Paxton and its exotic inhabitants. It is, however, a class act.
Review by Keith Brooke.
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© Keith Brooke 12 May 2001