(Gollancz, £5.99, 131 pages, paperback, first published 2001,
this edition published 12 September 2002, received 27 August 2002.)
The knock on Steve Aylett, when there's been one, is that he's too
clever for his
own good. After reading Aylett's new story collection, Toxicology,
I wish more writers were too clever for their own good -- it sure beats
being lumped in with all those other writers who are too stupid for
their own good. So what if Aylett shows no interest in providing deep
characters or traditional plots? If I want those things, I can find
them elsewhere. Why try to classify Aylett by standards that do not
apply to his work? His characters, for example, aren't shallow -- they're
often, like Egyptian hieroglyphics, at the same depth as his settings:
integrated with the technology.
What Toxicology does offer is a series of short, sharp shocks.
From the faux "Metamorphosis" story "The Met Are All for You" to the
hilarious "Bestiary", the author subverts reader expectations to a liberating
degree. Commenting directly on the literature Aylett does not aspire
to, the bestiary's albatross entry sums up the author's approach: "...expressionless,
cruising bird. In the Ancient Mariner, Coleridge hung a dead
one around the protagonist's neck in a desperate attempt to make him
Other tales -- "tales" being an appropriate word for Aylett's post-cyberpunk
technology-invested stylizations -- provide the pleasures of edgy wordplay,
excellent use of extended metaphors, and fearless ideas. It's hard to
have any reaction other than admiration for a short-short like "If [Neil]
Armstrong Was Interesting", which piles absurdity on absurdity until
you find yourself roaring at such lines as
If Armstrong was interesting, he'd sell baby crocs on TV
for "crazy prices". He'd crash into people's front rooms in the cab
of a beaked ironclad Russian locomotive. He'd work as the actor inside
the rigid costume of Gamera, the giant turtle which flies by means of
a nuclear arse.
Can Aylett be too cutesy? Certainly. He can also speak in fragments
-- most of the Beerlight pieces included in Toxicology function
as shards, and thus only underscore my own position that Aylett operates
at his best at the longer lengths, where he can fully develop the lunatic
logical illogic that has become his trademark.
But, overall, this is a vibrant and necessary collection -- it clears
away much of the artery-clotting verbosity available between the covers
in recent years. Too smart for his own good? Hardly. Put another way,
would you want Andy Warhol to paint like Chagall?
Review by Jeff VanderMeer.
Elsewhere in infinity