Plastic Jesus grabs you by the throat. From the opening paragraph, without warning, it plunges you into a world of fear and confusion and visceral emotion. When it spews you back out again, you are left dizzy, overwhelmed – and desperate to read more. And it’s then that you take your first fearful steps into Lark City…
It is the near future, following a devastating Holy War. Once part of the US colonies, Maalside, the New Republic, now stands alone in the Pacific, separated from the heartland by 200 miles of salty ocean. Lark City is its capital, watched over by a 50 foot, pouting, stiletto-heeled and garter-belted ‘Miss Liberty’, a crude parody of the famous landmark across the water.
In this brutal neon jungle, Code Guy Johnny Lyon writes a Jesus social networking AI, to rebrand religion following the war. But something goes wrong; a virtual hell breaks on the streets of Lark – a violent, surreal and uncontrollable social breakdown.
Caught in this terrifying web of danger are Sarah Lee, Johnny’s co-worker, drug lord Paul McBride who is determined to exploit the chaos to wipe out his enemies, and McBride’s junkie daughter, a prostitute called Kitty.
Now, only Johnny can save Sarah, Kitty and the city.
The first thing which strikes you about PLASTIC JESUS is the setting. Read any of the reviews dotted around the Internet and you’ll see comparisons being drawn with BLADE RUNNER and William Gibson’s NEUROMANCER. Such comparisons are justly deserved, because Wayne’s created a rich and vivid world here. I asked him to describe Lark City to me, and he said: “It’s a sprawling noir cityscape with echoes of burlesque and 1950s style. Tomb Street is where most of the action takes place. It weaves like a snake through the centre of Lark, soaking up style and clientele alike from all four quarters of the city. Its main landmarks are the Penny Dreadful whorehouse, the city’s favourite bar, Vegas, and strip club, Route 66 (where the guys get their kicks, reads the tagline). An endless troupe of colourful dancers and street performers file through Tomb Street like tattooed marionettes.”
Those of you who know Wayne and I and have heard us speak will know that we often talk about labels within genres. With PLASTIC JESUS, Wayne has taken the cast of an old-school pulp crime novel, equipped them with the basic skills they need to survive (or not), and catapulted them into the future. He describes the book as a tech noir/cyberpunk novel, his “love letter to William Gibson and Ridley Scott as well as a host of noir and neo-noir writers through the ages such as Lawrence Block, Day Keene, Donald E. Westlake, and Christa Faust.”
But, for me, it’s those characters that make the book such a rewarding read. At first you feel like you’re one of the masses walking the streets of Lark alongside them, struggling to keep track of who’s who in this dark and uncomfortable world. As the story progresses, attachments build with each of the men and woman involved, and those attachments combine to give PLASTIC JESUS a real impact as it reaches its climax. Despite how it may appear, religion’s not the crux of this story. The heart of book is with these disconnected and disenfranchised people (as Wayne describes them), and how they cope individually with the launch of the Jesus program and the dramatic ramifications for themselves, Lark City and beyond.
PLASTIC JESUS has stuck with me since I finished reading it, and that’s the sign of a good read. Despite the future setting and technology involved, the story is written in an uncluttered, punchy and accessible style. As I’ve already said, it’s as if the cast of a hard-boiled crime novel had simply been picked up and dropped into Wayne’s future nightmare. That’s important, because although it’s his first outright science-fiction novel, it remains immediately accessible to people who wouldn’t normally read the genre. “Tech noir is thriving again,” Wayne says. “Console gaming is full of cyberpunk and tech. Ridley Scott has signed on to write sequels to Blade Runner. Both UK high street genre mags, SCIFI NOW and SFX, recently printed articles on the revival of cyberpunk and tech noir. I hope Plastic Jesus can be part of that revival.”
And how about a return to Lark? Wayne says he’d love to go back. “There’s something about the world and its ragtag cast that feels really familiar. This story came very naturally to me. But it all depends upon how well this book sells, I guess. That’s always the bottom line in this business.”
PLASTIC JESUS is thoroughly recommended. It’s a fast-moving book that hits you like a punch to the gut, and I hope it finds the audience it deserves. Pick it up now from Amazon, Waterstones, Play.com, The Book Depository, Hive, and all the usual outlets. Visit Wayne online at www.waynesimmons.org