Kim Lakin-Smith's Cyber Circus follows the adventures - and misadventures - of the titular circus. A group of performers in a flying dieselpunk machine bound from one post-apocalyptic town to another, barely eking out a living. The setting is a dust-choked, war-torn version of the United States, with only a few hollow reminders of our own reality.
Cyber Circus is the latest of the 2011 books that investigate the idea of exceptionalism using genre fiction. Al Ewing's Gods of Manhattan is a contemporary steampunk look at pulp heroes. Mark Charan Newton's The Book of Transformations explores the failure inherent in the very concept of "superheroism". Cyber Circus belongs in their number - a darkly poetic examination of what it means to be something other than human.
The key difference between Cyber Circus and the other two is that it explores not superheroism but subhumanism. The book is packed with a wild cast of characters, all of whom have been lessened in some way; physically or mentally, they've had something taken from them or been altered into something deplorably specialised. The genre-typical fantasy tale explores the idea of identity by following a character's search for their own pre-determined greatness. Cyber Circus is the reverse - a quest for acceptance, as undertaken by a true group of misfits.
Three of the primary misfits are Nim, Pig Heart and Hellequin. Nim and Pig Heart have both been biologically changed. Even in the bizarre post-apocalyptic world of Cyber Circus, they're rarities, thus their presence as part of the travelling crew. Nim has been embedded with a sort of circuitry, giving her the ability to project her own bio-luminescence. She's foxy and she glows; a one-woman act that never fails to bring the house down. Nim's also on the run; her unique form of beauty is of value to the right (that is, wrong) people. Pig Heart has, as his name describes, the heart of a pig. Born human, he's undergone an array of back-alley surgeries that have left him more animal than man. Finally, Hellequin is a HawkEye, a cybernetically-enhanced soldier with decomposing programming and a chunk of metal in his face. All three have their strengths (literally, in Pig Heart's case), but the marginal benefits of their conditions are far outweighed by the difficulties that they face every day. Like the other members of the Circus - Wolf Girl, the Scuttlers and the Hoppers - they're freaks. However ruined society may be, it still preserves enough residual superciliousness to shun our heroes.
Nor does heroism come easily to the crew of the Circus. It is a dark world and everyone comes packaged with an appropriately grim past. Nim isn't the only one on the run and most of the Circus members would, given the choice, rather be keeping a low profile. Even when there's no active external danger, the characters make their own. In times of trouble, the circus folk know how to band together and survive. But in times of peace, their specialised skills are of little use, and the characters revert to insecure, self-destructive outsiders. Hellequin, Nim and company have mastered the art of survival, but living beyond the desperate day-to-day still eludes them.
The characters are also under constant, nagging pressure to succumb to their animal instincts and mechanical programming. They are repeatedly faced with tough decisions, forced to choose between relaxing into their autonomic impulses or striving to hold (or find) their fragments of humanity. Distinctly unlike your average Disney movie, Cyber Circus also posits that the hard choice isn't always the right one. On several occasions the struggling Hellequin or ambitious Pig Heart consciously set out to do the human thing, only to be rebuffed, or have everything go awry due to their uncharacteristically "tender-hearted" behaviour.
The book's stark dustbowl background and decomposing outcast villages are reminiscent of mid-century Westerns - the sorts of novel in which the bleak landscape provides a canvas for a man to discover what it means to be a Man. The challenges of nature and the isolation from society force the characters into small, often irrational working groups. Or, when a character is on his or her own, the emptiness (and danger) of the surroundings serve as the background for tobacco-chewing meditative introspection. Ms. Lakin-Smith has created a beautiful and inhospitable landscape and used it to its fullest. As the follow-up story "Black Sunday" demonstrates, the world of Cyber Circus also has far-reaching possibilities and has been exquisitely planned.
Still, as spectacular as it is, to read Cyber Circus for the world-building is to miss the point entirely. Ms. Lakin-Smith has created a floating ship crewed by empathetic (almost painfully so) figures. There's no shortage of action, but the book's greatest strength is in its merciless, unceasing intensity. From start to finish, the reader is inescapably bound in the characters' struggles, both the petty and the epic. However grindingly dispiriting their failures may be (and there are many), their triumphs are cause for genuine celebration. Cyber Circus tragically and brilliantly captures the spirit of the true underdog - not the boy that wants to be king, but the puppet that wants to be a boy.