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A near future, dystopian science fiction treat of a thriller with the love child of Blade Runner, Lawnmower Man and Judge Dredd!
on 1 December 2013
Belfast born, and now Cardiff incomer, Wayne Simmons is an author best known for his string of excellent zombie novels: Drop Dead Gorgeous, Flu, Fever, and Doll Parts, which have been published in the UK, Austria, Germany, Spain, Turkey and North America.
With Plastic Jesus he has turned his hand to a near future, dystopian science fiction treat of a thriller which brings us the twisted love child of Blade Runner, Lawnmower Man and Judge Dredd. This novel could easily have been a gritty and dirty crime novel, with a seedy underbelly of a broken city cleverly shown within each and every page. From crime lords to junkies, to corrupt police and corrupting big business, this novel had every making of a noir special ...but Wayne wasn't satisfied with `just' a great crime book, oh no. This book shows us what just may happen when religion and capitalism collide in unholy matrimony and the world `ends' as a result. Well, when I say ends I mean society pretty much collapses: drugs, prostitution, and virtual reality technology hold sway in a future where religion is forgotten, disparaged, or is a dirty word.
As with his other books Wayne jumps right into things and keeps a pretty frenetic pace all the way through. Disparate characters are introduced at break neck speed and only near the end do they all started to come together, strands of a very large web that Wayne deftly weaves in his story. There isn't really a `good' guy amongst the bunch. Johnny Lyons is a widower who is drowning in his own grief. Garcon, his boss, is willing to go to any lengths to give his company the success that it needs. Harold Shephard, the last preacher in a city without religion, has lost his faith. Rudlow, the chief of police, is desperate to bring the ruling crime lord to justice. McBride, the said crime lord, is all-powerful and, rightly, feared by everyone ...other than Kitty, his daughter, how lives in a permanent drug-fuelled high, paid for by prostitution.
It is Simmons' characters that steal the show in Plastic Jesus. I mean this as a compliment entirely but Wayne doesn't waste time writing complex plot around storylines that you need a PhD in `wtf' to understand. He writes about the zombie apocalypse, he writes about situations that people can grasp and, mostly, he writes about people in those situations. He makes you despise who you should despise, he makes you root for who you should root for, but he never makes his heroes wear white, or his villains wear black ... he makes every character flawed, broken, detailed, and, above all, real.
In a story where an Island off the coast of America is falling apart at the seams, where a virtual reality Jesus may be the thing that saves or damns humanity, where families come together and are torn apart, and where everyone seems to succumb to despair and hit rock bottom, reality is the thing that stood out the most. Wayne writes about the fantastical with the ability to keep the reader firmly entranced within the story and with the characters.
Is this book perfect? No. I think that perhaps it is sometimes too dark, too unrelenting in terms of despair and humanity's failings. No one comes out of the book unscathed and, perhaps, that will be too dark for some. There are elements of light and humour in it, of course, and depending on your perspective there may even be a form of happy ending for some. Also, speaking of endings, the resolution for the book is the only time that the pace lets itself down; there are a lot of characters, with individual stories that tie into the overarching narrative of the book and while they are all handled nicely it feels like the pace speeds up just a little too much near the end. I think that this story could easily have spanned a couple, maybe even three, books, and by doing so there would have been more space to not only breathe but to discover the characters in more detail ...and to experience the fear/horror of virtual reality gone wrong.
That is a minor niggle, and Wayne may have plans to bring back some (not all ...not everyone comes out alive in a Wayne Simmons book, after all) of the characters that we met. For me I'd love to find out more about Charles 7!
To sum things up Plastic Jesus gives us an uncomfortable look at ourselves, and what we could become ...what some of us are already... in a world filled with avarice and addiction, to money, to drugs, and to technology. It could be described as cyberpunk, or sci-fi thriller, but whatever it is it is undoubtedly very good indeed.