Tuesday, June 09, 2020

the last book I read

by Michael Marshall Smith.

Jack Randall has got a few problems. Ex-army, with a host of memories of the Bad Stuff, an on-off addiction to designer drug Rapt, fleeing various problems in his former life in New Richmond, Virginia, not least an ongoing dispute with some local crime lords that resulted in the gruesome murder of his wife and daughter, and currently earning a crust as the caretaker of a shady facility which houses clones of notable people and keeps them alive just on the off-chance that one of these notables might ski into a snowplough and lose some limbs, at which point hello, inmate 46, time for you to have a bit of un-anaesthetised limb surgery.

Jack doesn't really have a great deal to do apart from keep the internal doors locked to prevent the clones wandering about the place and occasionally assist in rounding up the relevant ones when John Q Celebrity needs a full-body skin graft. But Jack is a man with an unerring instinct for getting into trouble, and he's soon letting the clones (or "spares", as they're known) wander the place and teaching them how to talk and read. Inevitably this results in him getting a bit attached to them, and when the next visit from the organ-harvesting squad comes around he engineers an escape with a handful of the spares.

Jack has some crazy ideas about heading off to Florida and starting a new life, but first he needs to realise some money, and the best way to do that is via a clandestine trip back to New Richmond, since that's where all Jack's contacts are. Most of the inhabitants of New Richmond live inside a giant abandoned aircraft, grounded there by mechanical problems some time after the destruction of old Richmond. Getting in and out cleanly without either getting collared by someone wanting to finish off some unfinished business or succumbing to the temptation to revisit some aspects of his former life is the key thing here, though, and needless to say Jack fails in both respects, so much so that by the time he returns to where he and the spares have been hiding out, most of them have been abducted by persons unknown who want them for their own nefarious purposes.

So Jack is obliged to return to New Richmond to try to solve the mystery and rescue the spares. This entails engaging with some unpalatable things from his past, firstly his former army colleague and now New Richmond's foremost crime boss, Johnny Vinaldi, who Jack strongly suspects may have been involved in the murder of his wife and daughter. Jack and Johnny's army days involved much time spent in the mind-warping computer-generated netherworld of The Gap, and Jack soon discovers that he will need to return there to rescue the spares and exorcise some of his own personal demons on the way, and once back in the "real" world exact some revenge on the people behind the whole scheme.

Any book seeking to relocate some sort of hard-boiled thriller plot to a futuristic milieu (where, usually, everything is simultaneously a) bafflingly hi-tech and b) a bit run-down and shit) complete with computer-generated alternate reality elements is going to have a hard time avoiding comparisons with classics of the genre like Neuromancer and Snow Crash, not to mention movies like Mad Max and Blade Runner. And, to be honest, as much fun as it is, Spares isn't really in that class, for a few reasons, notably that big chunks of the plot don't really make sense. Take Jack's relationship with Johnny Vinaldi, for example: he starts off wanting to kill him, then, an implausibly short time afterwards, they're tooling up to head into The Gap together to kick some virtual ass, then shortly afterwards Vinaldi is saving Jack's life back in the real world, then shortly after that Jack is holding a gun to his head again after it is revealed that Vinaldi in fact did kill his wife and daughter after all, then he lets him go. The netherworld of The Gap is set up in such a way as to raise a host of unanswered questions: it's clearly not a wholly virtual realm like the "matrix" in Neuromancer, and you do actually physically enter it (and presumably disappear from the "real" world while doing so) so how does the transition from one realm of reality to the other work? As described in the book it's all a bit Platform 9¾ for my liking. And the (presumed) killing at the book's end of the guy who's been trying to kill Jack and is responsible for the abduction of the spares happens a bit disappointingly "offscreen" to be properly satisfying.

The main complaint, though, is that the book's title leads you to expect something rather different from what you actually get. What you get is fine in its own way, but after the initial rescue and flight from the facility the spares play very little part in it except as a sort of plot MacGuffin, and (SPOILER ALERT) they all die, rendering the whole exercise arguably a bit futile. Which is a pity, in a way, because it's an interesting idea almost identical to the one which forms the main plot of Never Let Me Go, published 9 years after Spares in 2005. 

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