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Deadstock
Jeffrey Thomas
Solaris, 416 pages

Deadstock
Jeffrey Thomas
Jeffrey Thomas is the Publisher/Editor of Necropolitan Press, an independent publisher of Horror, Science Fiction and Dark Fantasy. Their first project was The End magazine, which ran through five issues. The press has gone on to release a number of single or multiple author chapbooks including The Early History of Ambergris By Duncan Shriek by Jeff VanderMeer, Tales of Sesqua Valley by W. H. Pugmire and The Bones of the Old Ones by Jeffrey Thomas.

Jeffrey Thomas Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Terror Incognita

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Jakob Schmidt

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When private investigator Jeremy Stake is hired to find the very special doll of Yuki Fukuda, daughter of the wealthy bioengineer John Fukuda, the whole thing seems to be little more than a practical joke. But soon, Stake is caught up in the rivalry between two major bioengineering companies, and the doll, itself an artificial organism, proves to be the key to a secret that should have been left buried. Nothing is well in Punktown, but it could all get much worse before the end of the day...

Deadstock, as with several of Jeffrey Thomas' previous stories and novels, is set in Punktown, a rundown metropolis on a distant world, populated by humans, by the native, humanoid Choom and by several other alien species. It loosely picks up on events from Thomas' previous novel Monstrocity (which I haven't read), but works fairly well on its own. Let's start on the bright side (even though the word "bright" isn't really appropriate for anything regarding Punktown): This has been the most entertaining novel I have read in a long time. The first half of Deadstock is quite reminiscent of the early cyberpunk novels. It has the noir sensibility of Neuromancer, along with strong hints of a John Shirley influence -- especially in its unapologetic, yet not arbitrary depiction of physical violence. The main character, Jeremy Stake, is a hard-boiled, but fundamentally good-natured and emotionally vulnerable war veteran who is also a mutant with a very special ability: If he looks a another person for a while, he involuntarily shape-shifts to mimic his or her appearance. Thomas treats this more as a discomfort to Stake than as a special ability, thereby adding a nice psychological component. Such elements of identity crisis, while not central to the novel, are quite obviously influenced by another high-tech/low-life classic; some passages of Deadstock are so extremely Blade Runner-like they can only be read either as rip-off or as homage.

The prose style of Deadstock is pretty straightforward and thereby also more reminiscent of classic cyberpunk than of certain newer authors of the urban weird that come to mind. The setting of Punktown, while technically far-future and on a distant planet, feels very much like a near-future dystopia, with little social or technological extrapolation in the proper sense, and a lot of overstatement of contemporary trends of corruption, commodification, gentrification and gang culture. Here, Thomas doesn't go beyond the classical stereotypes, but he makes good use of them. To his pessimistic vision of Punktown, he adds elements of Lovecraftian mythology that provide for an apocalyptic outlook.

The latter are not quite discernible in the first chapters. Deadstock begins as a rather classical, well-written science fiction noir, with the "Blank People," bioengineered, golem-like creatures, adding a very efficient horror element; this is where the novel is at its best. The weaknesses of Deadstock become more noticeable in its second half. For one thing, there are the longish infodumps on each of the stories background, most of them framed as all too convenient disclosures by Jeremy Stake's client John Fukuda. The last of these revelations is obviously supposed to be the final twist of the novel, but has actually little impact on the story and, worse, is glaringly obvious from its set-up about a hundred pages earlier.

Besides this weaknesses in plot construction, the horror elements are much less efficient in the final chapters. The silently threatening "Blank People" are replaced by the actual big baddy: the giant, Cthulhu-like monster Yuki's lost doll has grown into. This creature is pretty hard to take seriously; in a way, we are obviously not even supposed to do so, since this being is depicted as psychologically childlike throughout the novel. While this allows Thomas to elaborate a neat metaphor on the dialectics of terror and primal desires, he just fails to make the whole thing scary. Lovecraft managed to render his often ridiculous creatures at least vaguely unsettling by a technique of sheer semantic overload. Thomas's plain prose, on the other hand, is simply not up to the task of turning a big grey blob into the paragon of existential terror.

Consequently, Deadstock drags a little in its second half and, as a whole, proves to be a slight letdown on its excellent opening. That being said, it still had me order Thomas' Monstrocity as soon as I had finished the last chapter. It's far from the aesthetic radicalism of Jeff VanderMeer's Veniss Underground or the conceptual intricacies of China Miéville's Perdido Street Station, but it's also much more accessible than both these authors. However, I'm convinced that Thomas could do much better than Deadstock if he'd concentrate just a little bit more.

Copyright © 2007 by Jakob Schmidt

Jakob is part of the editorial team of the German magazine Pandora. That's in his spare time, which luckily still makes up the bulk of his days.


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