They say never judge a book by its cover, but the sheer ubiquitousness of Spares (with its oh-so-cool spot-varnished, blurry-type cover) inclined me to think it was the sort of bestselling “new fiction” which generally leaves me cold. Fortunately for me, a friend had already read it and liked it so much that she bought everyone a copy for Christmas. Am I glad she did.
Jack Randall is an ex-soldier. Recovering from a military experiment which went horribly wrong (but is not detailed until the closing stages of the book, and even then not fully), Jack took a mundane police job in New Richmond, a grounded MegaMall — picture a flying cuboid city, five miles square. His wife and child are subsequently horribly murdered. This sends Jack into a paranoid psychotic episode which sees him eventually working as a maintenance man on a Spares Farm with only the local droid for company.
Spares themselves are a logical but hideous concept — clones of those wealthy enough to afford them (the trend is for having your children cloned as “insurance”), grown and kept in confinement as very literal spare parts, to be hacked up and used as donors when said offspring has an accident.
The moral quandary which Smith highlights, quite apart from the issue of whether or not the Spares should have rights as human beings, is the inherent lack of responsibility that comes with such a safety-net. The rich kids are almost incapable of learning from their mistakes, as the consequences are never drastic. Lost both legs in a car accident? Hey, no praahblem — just chainsaw a couple off of one of your Spares (no anaesthetic required), stitch ’em on, and within a week you’ll be zipping round at 200kph again.
All of this is background — the book starts after all this, including Jack’s subsequent breakout from the Farm, has occurred. Luckily, with such a wealth of background plot to cover, Smith’s exposition is understated and conversational, a personal preference of mine. Rather than ham-fistedly inserting great wads of flashback and explanation, Smith only elaborates on background when relevant, and then in a fairly offhand, matter-of-fact manner. This is not an author who underestimates his audience’s ability to piece a story together from fragments, and this can only be a Good Thing.
In addition to the problems encountered during his escape from the Farm, Jack also has demons from his military and police pasts to deal with. As the book progresses it becomes apparent the three issues are linked in some fashion, but the reasons are well-concealed and tension is maintained right to the bitter end. Just when you think you’ve been given the key to unlock the whole book, Smith reminds you of something else that still doesn’t fit and you find yourself back on the edge of your seat.
Smith’s style owes a debt, I feel, to Jeff Noon, and I freely admit this is one of the reasons I enjoyed this book so much. It is of course possible the two have never met or even read one another, their styles simply developing independently along similar lines. But judging by the tone of Smith’s first novel Only Forward (an altogether more upbeat and “trad” novel) my guess is that he picked up some Noon and realised what his style was missing — some Modern British Edge (no, I can’t believe I just said that either).
Despite Spares’ unstated geographical location, it has a very American feel — told with a very British tone of voice. I suspect Smith was trying (and perhaps a little too hard) to make sure the book would be received well on both sides of the Atlantic. Brits are used to plots set in America anyway, and the American sense of hubris remains intact. This doesn’t do any harm, but it would have been nice to see another young British author actually setting the scene here in the UK.
The only part of this book that disappoints is the ending. It’s just too damn happy, and not a little forced. A tragic ending — which the rest of the book certainly leads one to expect — would not only have made more sense, but also would have read better. The epilogue is short, and doesn’t completely ruin the book, but it is extremely hard to swallow given all that has gone before. To me it smacked a little of either editorial draconianism or authorly cowardice. Still, only a small niggle.
So — $64,000 question — is it Cyberpunk? As always, that depends on your definition of the genre, and is another reason I compare Smith with Noon. There’s no actual common-or-garden “cyber” as such, although there is plenty of NuTech, especially of a biomedical nature. There’s also a fair amount of horror, both body and psychological. Although there was only one passage which actually made me wince, it was such a blinding combination of these two “horror-types” that I really don’t care if I never read it again. It’s etched firmly enough in my brain to not have to.
But it’s the attitude that comes across most here, and Smith has a good handle on both the street-level, amoral survivalism of Cyberpunk and the art of telling a damn good story that makes the genre so inherently indefinable. So for what it’s worth, yes, it’s Cyberpunk. But that’s not important here. What is important is that this topical, headlong outburst is only Smith’s second novel. If by that we can assume he’s just getting started, I truly believe we have a great author in the clone vats.