A fun article which goes into some of the more unique abilities possessed by Venom ahead of the movie coming out next month.
I was always
A Batman kind of kid,
Grateful for having a mother
And working out the
Endless beatings to be him,
But I liked the other guy
The sense of how when the world
He was all
‘I’m here to help.’
And there’s people who’d
Say I’m a villain,
But I liked the idea
Of goodness and strength
Sleeping in the same bed,
Not always succeeded,
But if we make our own
Gods and monsters,
There’s something to be said
For making them float
From the sky
Offer a hand
‘I’m here to help.’
If you’re reading this, then I’ve won.
It is a matter of perspective.
If the aim is survival, then I have won.
If the aim is the natural order of balance and justice, then I have lost.
I wrote and drew a comic book based on a public domain character called Blackout. It started like most things as a joke when I was playing Serious Artist who sought to revolutionise the medium of comic books. I worked in an office during the day, answering the phone to damaged and upset people who were reporting the damaged things in their public housing that upset them then scripted and drew either in the mornings or late into the night. It was exhausting but each time I drew a page or finished a script; it was a little victory and enough fuel to sustain me through another appraisal where I had to lie and say how awesome my job was.
Success came when one of the collected editions ended up on the desk of someone who worked at Imagine Entertainment and then they met with me in London. I had to walk around the block twice to make sure it was real and to burn off some of the adrenaline that made me want to shit myself and throw up at the same time. The meeting went well; I contributed a script and two years later; I had the surreal experience of watching my characters speaking my words on a big screen.
It felt like a mild, pleasurable delusion. The money enabled me to commit to the work full time. I got a card and a set of brushes from my colleagues. It was difficult to hide my fear and my excitement at being able to live out a long-denied dream of mine.
That is all the background so you can dislike or envy me. It depends on how you view what happened next.
I had been busy with revisions for the movie sequel, comprising notes from the star and executive producer who had read Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey and understood none of it alongside scripting and drawing the latest graphic novel. I did too much too soon and although my enthusiasm had not waned; it loosened the clutch on my judgement a little.
Which is why I took the bike out late when it was dark and the roads were wet.
I was not doing over fifty when the flare of headlights sliced across my eyes and the bike bucked out from under me, skidding and slipping before I experienced nothing at all.
I awoke in an alleyway, the high, ammoniac smell of urine in my nostrils and still in my leathers but without my helmet. A rat the size of a puppy stared at me as it dragged a bloodied child’s sneaker by a fraying pink lace. No injuries but no bike and no sign of where I was.
I looked up at a night sky stained with sodium lights. A canopy on the city that never slept.
I knew this place.
I created it.
My last mental breakdown had been horrible, a complete and unsparing awareness of the world and my place in it. A perpetual battle to do simple things like shave or go to the shops without floods of tears or a panic so complete that it made me speechless. If this was one, then it was more interesting and complete than anything before it.
Hanson City was to Blackout what Gotham was to the Batman and New York was to most of the Marvel Universe. It was a monumental pile of shit to have as a residence, but it provided me with enough story ideas to power me through a good decade of work.
Political and religious corruption.
An ancient order of architects and potentates who controlled the fate of Hanson City with a tight grip and resented the efforts of Blackout to bring about justice and order to the city.
Villains who were analogues of better villains, and I even had a team of garish cyborgs who remained in suspended animation until the artificial intelligence that controlled them would awaken them to go on rampages that occurred when I had nothing to say of true artistic value but needed a section to pad out the second act.
So I had created a place perfect to play God over, but never in a million years worth being subjected to.
I left the alleyway and ran straight into a sloppy, ugly fight between a young man and an elderly woman clutching at her purse.
‘Oi, stop.’ I said.
He turned and sneered at me, reaching in his pocket for a knife to brandish at me. If he had used it on the old lady, he would have been home by now.
The thump of something heavy landing from a long way up shook the surrounding buildings. In my head, Hans Zimmer’s score started up and I knew this scene before it happened. I had written it a million times.
Continuity had other plans.
I had worked myself into exhaustion writing a story that talked about the possible realities of having a post human with abilities beyond those of men. The heroes of the comic book universe would terrify in real life. I knew not to give the finger to my audience. I compensated for the internal whispers that despite my success, I was not a Serious Artist.
When Blackout punched his hand through the mugger’s skull, I screamed louder than the old lady did.
She ran away and I stood there. The blood steamed off his fist and he glared at me, his eyes shining with brutal need. He looked different from how I had drawn him, part of the anguish of the artistic process where in your head it is a perfect symbolic ideal and on the page, it looks like you gave yourself a paint enema and opened your cheeks onto the page.
He had sallow, pockmarked cheeks from adolescent acne and his hair was thinning. His muscles strained against his black unitard, which highlighted his abdominal definition but not the outline of his cock. I put my hands up, but he kept coming, slow for dramatic effect and I imagined the amount of panels.
I pleaded with him. In the script, I had a second act twist planned but here it was all reality. I stared into the eyes of my creation.
There was a voice in my head that was the antidote to the whispering doubts, it strutted around, kept me writing when I could have lapsed into marathon sessions of Borderlands 2 and Netflix. I had taken this character and renewed him, made him complex and beautiful. In his original appearance, he had gained his power from the vapours produced by a synthesis of formic acid and chemical names I had to search for without understanding.
You should have seen some of the letters I got. A woman who lectured chemistry at a university in Massachusetts wrote me an eighteen page letter explaining how and why I had gotten it so wrong. I sent her a signed copy of the last graphic novel, but it was her attention to detail that came as I stood there.
Nothing is original except for your voice. His revised origin was sleek and modern. Operant conditioning, genetic enhancement and control words gave Blackout his powers.
There were several, used at points where I needed to create the false climax. No, not the kind you use where you groan like you have a cramp and tell her how lovely she is, but the narrative kind.
I had made them up using Enochian, a language developed by John Dee, the historical alchemist which was the language of angels. I was unsure whether it would stop him.
‘MA CHEE ELL’
He stopped, clutched at his head in a performance that would have earned awards if it were happening anywhere outside of my head. His belch made the air fill with the stink of sour milk and battery acid before he keeled over and fell onto his face.
I kneeled in front of him, checked his pulse and found nothing.
I liked to use minimal backgrounds but the fan fiction had capitalized on my laziness and I read enough of it to figure out my bearings.
If I was mad, then I had done a great job of building this delusion until it became real.
My body might be on a bed somewhere, tubes packed into every orifice, bandaged and comatose as my relatives discussed whether to switch off the machines keeping me alive. There, I was a deep-fried vegetable who might warrant a hashtag on Twitter.
Here I was someone who knew a few things.
The location of the secret lair. All the costumes I had designed and the rows of chemicals that controlled his power levels.
My secret lair.
The rain had stopped. I stood over his body and heard the wail of sirens coming towards me. In the books, it was always a cue for him to run across the rooftops, take to the sky or have a terse conversation with the police detective who was his friend on the force. Here, it was a cue for me to be arrested and not be able to explain a single word of what had happened.
I ran. It took over an hour to find the lair, but I stood in front of the rusted sewer grate and fought the urge to weep with gratitude.
I am writing this. I performed two sets of intra-muscular injections an hour ago. In another thirty minutes I will take a dose of neurotropics that will enhance my intellect and sensory acuity. An hour after that, I will see if my delusions have any real import to them.
If you’re reading this, then I’ve won.
It is a matter of perspective.
If the aim is survival, then I have won.
If the aim is the natural order of balance and justice, then I have lost.
Either way, it will make for a hell of a story.
Theresa saw the sign held up by a single push pin on the notice board. It was a single sheet of A4 paper, typed with care and containing the least possible amount of information. It was a notice that knew its own appeal and power over the students who stopped to read it, drawn in by need.
VOLUNTEERS FOR MEDICAL TESTS
Theresa needed cash. She had given blood twice in the last month, signing in under a different name and suffering the tinny, empty hangover of deprivation, shovelling multi-vitamins and drinking orange juice to enable her to make it through classes and assignments until she recovered.
College was not the grand escape she had been led to believe. These doubts haunted her, but she would think of returning home, slinking across the threshold to the mockery of her family, an eternity of shifts at the IHOP, having a baby in lieu of anything else to do with her time and that would motivate her to keep going.
Hunger was her steady guy but it was a bipolar relationship. Hunger motivates a great many decisions, and history showed that Theresa Thomas was like a great many other college students, chained down with debt and starting to wonder if a college education was the great escape society told her it was, or simply a better mousetrap to snap her fragile neck with.
She went over to the science department building, thinking of what a little cash injection would do for her situation, and all that the email said was required was to sit in a high backed chair with an IV in her arm, and the worst that might happen was either a vague sense of discomforting penetration or a mild elevation of mood. Which was how she had characterised her sex life anyway, so she entered the building with a muted but steadfast enthusiasm.
The people who gave the briefing had the shiny, superficial charm of low-end motivational speakers, their appearances and voices pitched at too high an energy level for a group of college students on a Sunday morning. Harry had a halo of light blonde hair, dazzling white teeth and pink, cherubic cheeks. His suit cost more than Theresa’s tuition and he spoke in the patrician tones of inherited wealth and indifference. His title was Vice President of Trials and Innovations, which Theresa took to be middle management, and not important enough to be allowed to spend their weekends on any amount of leisure time.
His partner, Gail, wore a tailored business, accentuating her marathon-hardened legs but otherwise sealing her in up to her throat. She had a gristly, overly tanned countenance and smiled as though levity caused her physical pain. She allowed Harry to give the briefing whilst typing carefully into a tablet without looking up. Theresa thought that the pairing reminded her of a divorced parent spending court mandated time with a child they weren’t sure was actually theirs.
‘So, this is an exciting time for Braiston Pharmaceuticals, where we’ve reached human testing with a product that we are sure will bring relief to the millions of Americans who suffer from long term anxiety related disorders.’
He clapped his hands together.
‘You’re all being ably compensated for your time here but in truth, you’re helping people. You embody the pioneer spirit that has made this country great.’
Theresa looked over at Nina, who had detected the scent of Republican and was sat there, fighting the internal conflict of need versus ideology by shifting in her seat. Looking around, Theresa saw that the small group of four people had the restlessness that she had known as the awkward wait for weed with a dealer you didn’t like, but felt obligated to have a conversation with before you picked up your shit and went home.
Save us the spiel, stick us and give us the money, motherfucker, Theresa thought.
Theresa zoned out, thinking about how after this, she could saunter over to Four Panel Grid and collect the comics she had on her pull list. She had always let her geek flag fly and had done so for long enough to foster a healthy resentment for the latter day surge in pop culture enthusiasm that had infected society. Theresa was ambivalent about most aspects of her hobby, she liked going to conventions in costume and understood how some women used it to build careers based on being titillating and crying victim at the same time yet she also thought that Obama should have passed as a federal law that anyone who said without irony that Spider Man was their favourite DC character should die by lethal injection. She would also volunteer that her ideal superpower would be telepathy, followed by telekinesis. Then invisibility, although she would want to figure out how she would be able to see if her eyes were unable to collect
She was excited about the next volume of Deadly Class and although it had been plagued by artist delays, she had an issue of Karnak waiting for her to pick up.
These reveries occupied her whilst physically, she signed release forms and was led to the high backed chair. She came to herself only when the first sharp pinch of the needle was inserted into her vein. The nurse looked at her with bright green eyes and auburn hair, smiling with a maternal ambivalence as she asked her if she was okay. Theresa shrugged and that made the nurse grin with recognition.
‘I had to do shit like this when I was at college. It’ll make for good stories later on, I promise.’
Theresa smiled back, relieved that someone was treating her like she was real, rather than a prop in someone else’s scheme. The nurse patted her on the forearm and stood up with a wince for her efforts before moving on to do the same for Nina.
Theresa had read Firestarter by Stephen King at a formative age plus a solid library of ‘experiments gone wrong’ mythology to unnerve her. She experienced nothing beyond a faint boredom and discomfort. She left the building with a white envelope and she managed to wait until she was on her way to the comic store before she checked it. It was the happiest she had been in a while, and she immediately experienced a small burst of shame for it, but on cue, her stomach burbled with hunger pangs and she got over it.
She fell asleep with the greasy remains of a Philly Cheese steak floating on a lake of Vanilla Coke in her stomach and her comics already back in their mylar bags and cardboard backing.
Her room mate Judy woke her just after seven, which wasn’t unusual as Judy had that perky efficiency which made her an ideal room mate but potentially an awful girlfriend.
What made Theresa bite back a cry of terror was what floated above Judy’s head.
A thought balloon. The dimensions of a dirigible with a stiff triangle pointing to the crown of Judy’s blue dreadlocked hair. The words were in upper case, flickering into being as Theresa’s eyes adjusted to the morning light.
WOULD IT KILL YOU TO ORGANISE YOUR OWN FUCKING LIFE FOR ONCE?
Theresa shuddered as she pushed back the duvet.
‘I never asked you, you know?’
‘Hey, all I said was good morning. What’s up with you?’
WHO’S PISSED IN YOUR CEREAL THIS MORNING?
Theresa had never experienced a florid degree of insanity, tangentially or otherwise. There had been a girl on campus who had moved from vegan activism through to believing that she could talk to animals and there were rumours she was caught naked in the riding stables ten miles down the road but otherwise she held the same awareness of functional anxiety, depression and suicide as performance.
The words kept twisting as Theresa tried not to stare in appalled awe at Judy’s thought patterns laid bare before her. She got out of bed with an appalled haste, running to the bathroom and looking in the mirror, telling herself that this was all a bad dream. She stared at herself, feeling a directed pressure building in her temples, like the mental equivalent of holding back the urge to pee.
Which was when the mirror shattered and fell from the wall in a burst of small shards like she had swung a sledgehammer at it. She sliced the heel of her left foot open as she darted backwards to avoid it, hand clamped over her mouth to keep from screaming. Judy called to her through the closed door and Theresa stood there, believing only in the solidity of the door at her back and the deeply realised belief that things were going really really wrong for her.
Judy relished the opportunity to fuel her passive aggressive resentment by playing reluctant caregiver, bandaging Theresa’s foot and sweeping up the glass. Theresa watched her train of thought travel from the station of:
SHE’S BEING REALLY FUCKING WEIRD THIS MORNING
It stopped at:
OH GOD IS SHE ON DRUGS? WAIT, OF COURSE SHE IS, THE BONG ON THE NIGHTSTAND WAS YOUR FIRST CLUE, MOODY JUDY. HEY WHAT RHYMES WITH ORANGE?
Then as she bandaged Theresa’s foot.
POOR THING, SHE’S PROBABLY ON THE VERGE OF A BREAKDOWN. I WONDER IF IT’S TRUE THAT IF SHE KILLS HERSELF, I’D GET AN A. THANK GOD BECAUSE I HAVE NO FUCKING CLUE HOW TO WRITE TWO THOUSAND WORDS ABOUT STANISLAVSKI. NOT EVEN IF YOU HELD A GUN TO MY HEAD.
Theresa limped out, kissed Judy on the cheek which warranted:
SHE’S COMING OUT. I MEAN, I WENT THROUGH THAT PHASE WHERE I IMAGINED SHE WAS FINGERBLASTING ME DRESSED AS BATGIRL BUT THAT WAS PROBABLY WHEN INDIA WAS DEALING WITH HER POST RACIAL GUILT ABOUT BLM. OH GOD AM I READY FOR ANOTHER RELATIONSHIP?
The relief of escaping that lasted for the time to took to get outside.
Theresa had gone to a writer’s panel at a convention once, and a pudgy young man dressed as Walter White in the yellow hazmat suit had asked the taciturn Englishman what was the thing artists hated most from him. He had given a deep chuckle. winked at the wiry artist to his left and told him.
‘Scenes with too much going on. It takes me thirty poxy seconds to write THE CROWD CHANTS but it takes him a week to draw and letter the bloody thing.’
There was a sea of thought balloons, each one writhing and dancing with the dance of subconscious thought made visible. Theresa did not imagine what her own would look like. Nina stood a few feet away, her hands pressed against her cheeks as tears streamed down.
Theresa made it over to her and pulled her into a tight, desperate hug.
‘It’s okay. This is just our secret origin, Nina, that’s all.’
Nina cried harder and Theresa remembered how she had laughed in shrill mockery when Tom Hanks blustered the need ‘to get me to a library’. The irony of what she said next did not escape her.
‘We need to get to the comic shop.’
It was after that, that things got really strange.
(This is a photograph of a bar designed by HR Giger. I know, right?)
Cara ushered them through a set of double doors into a small lounge, where chairs shaped like clam shells were arranged around rectangular tables. Which would not have attracted anyone’s notice aside from the fact that everything floated a good foot above the floor.
Cara caught their mutual expressions of disbelief and laughed.
‘Rare earth magnets and molybdenum. They can take the weight of a Gysterfanica warpod, so we’ll be fine, I promise.’
She gestured towards the bar.
‘Now, I will get us drinks, and you have to trust me here. There are at least eighteen things on the menu that will kill you and about thirty that will turn you blind or insane.’
Drea chuckled and shook her head.
‘Sounds like my kind of bar. Although what the fuck is a Gysterwhatever?’
Gloria saw that Olivia had turned tense and pale, she put a hand on her shoulder and asked if she was okay. Olivia gave a tight nod and took a deep breath.
‘It’s a lot to take in, you know? My biggest concern was keeping the farm running and maybe someone to run it with, ya know?’
Gloria saw the pensive light in her eyes and expressed a true pang of sympathy for her. At least her and Drea had some form of pop culture to inoculate them against all of this, but Olivia was experiencing the cognitive dissonance that would result from giving a Victorian lady a Hitachi Magic Wand.
‘If it’s any consolation, I am ready to run around screaming at any possible minute. So look, let’s keep this in perspective. If you’re mad, then so am I and if we’re not, then we see what she has to say. Deal?’
Olivia managed a terse smile and put a callused hand out to shake. Gloria shook it and grinned, surprised at the strength she manifested in a causal handshake. Farm girls, she thought. The contact was enlivening and grounding, reminding her that she was not the only one going through this.
Cara came back with a black slate tablet and gestured to a nearby table.
‘Drea, a warpod is a species of an intelligent mollusc race that used to cause all kinds of shit, but they’re absolutely hilarious once you get over the whole cultural barrier. Now let’s sit down and I can fill you all in on the next bit.’
Drea frowned and pointed to the tablet in Cara’s hands.
‘Where are our drinks? If I’m going to listen to more space cosmic shit, then I want at least one entertaining anecdote to wake up with.’
Cara rolled her eyes and placed the tablet onto the table, where it sank into the surface with the ease of a pebble dropped into a body of water. Four tumblers emerged from the mass of the table and immediately filled with an orange carbonated liquid. In the centre rose a small column that began to glow and hum with a sequence of different colours. The air around them vibrated and became tangible against their skins as they sat down.
Drea picked up the tumbler and took a sniff. It carried an oily, citrus scent and when she brought it to her lips, it was thick and warm with the aftertaste of bubbles. She set it down and stared into space for a second then looked at the three of them in turn.
‘When I used to watch Star Trek, they all used to drink these fruity, strange looking drinks and I always wondered how they tasted.’
Cara picked hers up and raised it.
‘Here’s to mayhem.’
The three women looked at one another, with mutual apprehension before Olivia and Gloria took sips of their drinks. When their powers of speech returned to him, Gloria asked if she could have a drop of water added to hers. Cara chuckled and said that she could, but only if she wanted it to explode in her lower intestine. Gloria set the drink down and it melted into the body of the table.
‘That’s a perfectly fine Undara Surprise you’re not drinking.’
Gloria winced and shook her head. She leaned forward, forearms resting on her thighs, afraid to touch the table in case it did something to her. She had always believed that the future would appear bizarre and at too high a velocity for a traveller from the past, but she could not say whether this was the future or not. Cara was the only recognizable human, and Gloria noted that her syntax and intonation had an odd, stilted quality to it.
‘I’ve had enough surprises to last me a lifetime. So, now that we’re all settled, why don’t you tell us what we’re supposed to do.’
Cara downed her drink in one and set it onto the table.
‘I like a woman who gets down to business. So, I’ve chosen the three of you-‘
Olivia coughed as she took another sip, with her eyes glazed over and a beatific smile on her face.
‘This stuff is…yeah…it kind of creeps up on you, don’t it?’
Drea tried to give her a thumbs up, but the brain-body connection that she took for granted had surrendered to whatever was in the drinks. Instead she gave a sloppy grin and tried to arrange her features into some kind of order that denoted mindfulness and concentration. She failed, but she figured it was worth the try.
‘It’s okay, it wears off in a bit if you just have the one, plus I’ve got RB’s if anyone’s a bit too off their tits.’
‘Arby’s?’ Gloria said.
Cara shook her head.
‘Receptor blockers, basically sobers you up instantly. I swear by them, especially with the diplomatic functions I have to attend.’
Gloria sat back and decided to go with the confusion. Source yourself in nothingness, she told herself and let it all happen. She remembered the retreat at Spirit Rock meditation centre, how it had removed the thorn of grief left in her heart’s paw, but it still stung when she moved.
‘Anyway, so what makes us so special?’ Gloria said.
Cara pointed at her with her index finger and the platinum ring there began to glow with a soothing amber light.
‘You in particular, or in general?’
‘THIS BOY WEARS COVERS, KIND OF HIM TO FAINT.’
The four of them turned as a Klee cloud from earlier billowed into the room exuding drunken indignation, which resembled in it’s scent signature, a gas station bathroom at four a.m. Cara rolled her eyes.
Olivia raised her hand.
‘The guy said it was because ah can shoot.’
Gloria fought to keep the consternation from her face, for fear of offending Olivia, who had inspired a protectiveness in her even though they were roughly the same age. There was a lack of sophistication to her that Gloria warmed to, from the very first. Cara gave her the thumbs up.
‘Yes, you, my dear, are a regular Carlos Hathcock. Also you give off a tremendous amount of potential energy when viewed from my particular perspective.’
Drea sat back in her chair, cautious because she realised that she was sitting in something with no apparent means of support.
‘There’s better fighters than me, out there. No shame in that.’ she said.
Cara nodded, in agreement.
‘Again, I’m working from a particular set of criteria here. Sure, you may not be Ronda Rousey but all my data centred around you three as a cluster of possibility.’
‘You’re using English, but I will be damned if I know what you’re talking about.’
Cara’s humour left her and she fixed Gloria with a look that could freeze the blood in her veins.
‘I could give you reassuring techno babble, none of which you would understand and we could waste time. I chose you because all the horribly sophisticated intelligence arrays and the experiences I have had, most of which will have shortened my life expectancy by centuries said that you three would be the most effective means of subduing -‘
Olivia cocked an eyebrow.
‘Y’all said kill.’
Cara nodded and waved her off, her attention focused on Gloria like a magnifying glass on an anthill.
‘Subdue, kill, either way if we don’t stop the Leviathan, there will be months of diplomatic wrangling, some messy and futile military action and then nothing.’
‘Nothing doesn’t sound that bad.’ Drea said.
Cara blinked slowly and sat up, pulling her shoulders back and lifting her chin.
‘When I say nothing, because my fear is that Leviathan will eat creation itself, or enough of it to make sure that our lives, inconsequential as they may be, are no longer around to be mourned.’
Gloria tried to imagine nothingness, much like the concept of zero, it took a great deal to approximate the idea of it. Endless possibilities, ended and she would never see or experience any of it. She thought about it on a smaller, more manageable set of concepts. No more running in the mornings, no more books to be written or read. No more ‘I love yous’.
‘So come it falls to you?; Gloria said.
Cara winked at her.
‘You know how Bond was the bastard of the British Empire, you know, everyone knew it was him coming if you messed with the empire and he was going to kick seven shades of shit out of you, raid your liquor cabinet and shag your girlfriend?’
Gloria smiled, warmed by the endearing swagger that Cara projected.
‘You’re the alien equivalent.’ she said.
Cara winked at her and made finger pistols.
‘Got it in one, but part of it means that I get a degree of levity that means I can move resources around faster than organisations or governments can. You three are assets that all my intelligence shows to be the most effective, least messy way of sorting this out. I outfit you with the kit, point you in the right direction and we all go home at the end of the day. That’s really about it.’
Gloria chuckled and shook her head.
‘I write books, what possible kit do I think I can get from you?’
Cara reached inside her jacket and retrieved a slim case, the kind that you would find a decent fountain pen within, a gift set that looked classy but showed little to no consideration. She slid it across the table to Gloria.
Gloria looked down at it, then back up at Cara who gave her a challenging, smug expression. She opened it slowly then looked up and sneered.
‘False nails and contact lenses? How the fuck am I meant to save creation with that?”
TO BE CONTINUED
HEAVEN IS A PRISON. HELL IS A PLAYGROUND.
Ross Baker is an overworked scientist developing medical technology for corporate giant Neurosphere, but he’d rather be playing computer games than dealing with his nightmare boss or slacker co-workers.
He volunteers as a test candidate for the new tech – anything to get out of the office for a few hours. But when he emerges from the scanner he discovers he’s not only escaped the office, but possibly escaped real life for good. He’s trapped in Starfire – a video game he played as a child – with no explanation, no backup and, most terrifyingly, no way out
I’ve enjoyed Brookmyre’s work for a long time, he has a unique, energetic turn of phrase, as well as a relish for the comedic violence and the kind of careful, smart plotting that comes from paying attention and understanding. He’s always had an understanding of video game culture that lends itself really well to a book that is a fast paced journey through multiple game worlds and thick with pop culture references. For all the praise that Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One got, Brookmyre does it with a lot more ease and a better story. That, though , comes with this being work from a more experienced author than Cline is.
It’s Tron with a healthy dash of social awareness and irreverence, a swift and enjoyable read with just enough heart to keep you invested and action sequences that capture the fizzing joy of video games. There’s a comic book sense of invention that demands your investment in it, and the third act becomes an emotional, beautiful investigation of what constitutes consciousness without being preachy or condescending in the least.
Lester Ferris, sergeant of the British Army, is a good man in need of a rest. He’s spent a lot of his life being shot at, and Afghanistan was the last stop on his road to exhaustion. He has no family, he’s nearly forty and burned out and about to be retired.
The island of Mancreu is the ideal place for Lester to serve out his time. It’s a former British colony in legal limbo, soon to be destroyed because of its very special version of toxic pollution – a down-at-heel, mildly larcenous backwater. Of course, that also makes Mancreu perfect for shady business, hence the Black Fleet of illicit ships lurking in the bay: listening stations, offshore hospitals, money laundering operations, drug factories and deniable torture centres. None of which should be a problem, because Lester’s brief is to sit tight and turn a blind eye.
But Lester Ferris has made a friend: a brilliant, Internet-addled street kid with a comicbook fixation who will need a home when the island dies – who might, Lester hopes, become an adopted son. Now, as Mancreu’s small society tumbles into violence, the boy needs Lester to be more than just an observer.
In the name of paternal love, Lester Ferris will do almost anything. And he’s a soldier with a knack for bad places: “almost anything” could be a very great deal – even becoming some sort of hero. But this is Mancreu, and everything here is upside down. Just exactly what sort of hero will the boy need?
I’ve read Nick Harkaway’s books and he has improved with each one, without losing the energy and invention that drew me to him in the first place. He understands that the emotional struggles matter as much as the action, and he puts equal amounts of passion and detail into both of them. He has a delirious grasp of pace and invention, and here he crafts a milieu that is both entirely fictional and yet feels torn from the headlines. He understands the pleasures of the superhero comic book are in it’s subtleties, the continuity, the invention and the melodrama but he also wields that to a literary sensibility that allows it to transcend fan fiction. There’s an appreciation of beauty and delicacy that in lesser hands would feel like a concession, but here it adds to Lester’s melancholy and provides an impetus to the third act where we see Tigerman pitted against near impossible odds.
Certainly the central relationship, an unspoken paternal friendship made me tear up at it’s conclusion and the plot uses that to great effect. What a rip roaring, joyful read and a much needed piece of escapism after a glut of political non fiction. It’s a lovely, surprising book and you should read it.