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Toxicology

by Steve Aylett

(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 cover scanhis 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 more interesting."

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.

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