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Steve Aylett
Gollancz, 133 pages

Steve Aylett
Steve Aylett was born in Bromley, England at the end of the sixties. He left school at 17 and worked in a book warehouse, and later in trade and law publishing. His first book The Crime Studio, published in 1994, was generally regarded as a cry for help. This was followed by Bigot Hall, Slaughtermatic, The Inflatable Volunteer, Toxicology, Atom, Shamanspace and Only an Alligator. He's published by Orion in the UK and Four Walls Eight Windows in the US, and was a finalist for the 1998 Philip K Dick Award (for Slaughtermatic).

Steve Aylett Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Crime Studio
SF Site Review: Atom
SF Site Review: Slaughtermatic

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka

...I might be hospitalized in a trance of indifference. I was now all shell. I had attained a state of pure irony. Cold static howled through me. Everything had died unmourned.
Attaining irony, pure or otherwise, seems to be the overarching objective of Steve Aylett's short (very short) fiction collected in Toxicology. (Consumer alert: The new Gollancz U.K. edition of Toxicology expands upon the 1999 Four Walls Eight Windows U.S. edition with six additional stories.) For the most part, the contents rarely rise above the level of a vignette or even just a long joke, and are not stories in the conventional sense. Indeed, Aylett characteristically strives for unconventionality. Which isn't a criticism, necessarily, just accurate description. He is also frequently funny, sometimes bitterly so.

Most of these tales seem as if they were written under the influence of conscious-altering substances, and my guess is that is the intended impression, whether in fact it was the actual case. This sometimes leads to writing excesses in which I'm not quite sure if Aylett is totally in control, much like a funny guy who becomes less so the more he drinks. What, for example, to make of this:

In the tank, watching the cohering shapes of the trip waft through the darkness. A panoramic glide over life's accidental parameters, heart fluttering in the updraughts. There was something in the stale stuff after all. A continent taking form.

A one-note recurrent heaven receded like astroturf. I'd thought it would broil and change but this was chronic. Statue people were fixed in it as though in quick-dry cement. Stuck out of the jigsaw edges were antique moralities, justifications severed and flapping. Denizens merely glanced as if I were part of the landscape, and overhang of modern effrontery.

Perhaps it is a bit unfair to take this out of context. It is about a guy in a sensory deprivation tank in a scientific experiment that has darker overtones than just the quest for knowledge. That explains some of it. But exactly how does astroturf "recede" or "broil and change" for that matter? And although I kind of like the image of the statue people stuck in cement with the flapping moralities, what, exactly is the point, other than to be surreal for the sake of being surreal?

The back cover book copy compares Aylett to, among others, William Burroughs, J.G. Ballard, Philip K. Dick, and Kurt Vonnegut. The last strikes me as particularly apt; like Vonnegut, Aylett can be pointedly funny, well-attuned to the absurdities of modern existence. Also like Vonnegut, Aylett sometimes overworks a lame gag.

But, also like Vonnegut, it's well worth reading. Take the opening story, "Gigantic." Just when I was getting totally fed up with its abstruseness, along comes this emotionally powerful ending that puts a whole new spin on the "first contact" trope. However, most of the tales are not nearly as profound. Case in point is "If Armstrong Was Interesting," about what the first man on the moon might have done if he had a sense of humor (or at least a sense of humor like Aylett's). Others are set in the Beerlight universe, a sort of cyberpunk Sesame Street noir, and and a couple satirize P.G. Wodehouse, set in the 1930s with an ever loyal butler who aids his unapologetic upper crust British employer get away with murder. Regardless of the setting, and regardless of whether you can make any sense of the setting, the bizarre situations are usually just a set up for a punchline. Sometimes, though, the punchline packs considerable wallop.

As Aylett points out, "Some things you don't believe till you see them in the mirror." The mirror he holds up for the reader is the same looking-glass variety that ensnared Alice, so it takes a bit of suspension of belief to get to the truth of the matter. Which makes it all the more worth looking into.

Copyright © 2002 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.

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