Before I Mortally Offend A Mate, I Feel I Should Begin By Defining What I Mean By “Trash”
So, here’s why I call my reviews “Adventures in Trash”. For the purposes of this blog, I like to focus on Genre fiction. I’m not actually implying I think these books are trash (although when I review one I do think is crap – as when my friend Heidi reviewed Lair of the White Worm – I promise I’ll say so). It’s more in the nature of a reclamation exercise. If Genre books are trashy, then God damn, I guess trash must be far more fun than we all ever imagined; and I shall celebrate the word “Trash” as often as possible, because I don’t think writing Trash should be anything to be ashamed of. So there.
Okay, now that’s out of the way, I can get on and review “Perfect World” by AJ Kirby. “Perfect World” is set in a futuristic English landscape, and it has by far the best high-concept opening I’ve seen in years. Sitting on the Bullet Train between a seedy, scruffy London and the West Country, Toby Hewitt writes the first line of the greatest scoop of his career; “I found God yesterday, happily retired in Elegant.”
Honestly, that’s pretty much all this story had to do to get me hooked. God is living among us! The protagonist is actually going to meet him! If the premise of a man discovering that God has retired to Cornwall doesn’t grab you, then maybe this whole Science-fiction thang isn’t really for you.
Of course, there’s even more going on here than this outrageously good opening premise suggests. God, in this instance, is the creator of Perfect World, a virtual-reality construct that has evolved so rapidly and proliferated so hugely that it’s now possible to live an entire life within its confines. Perfect World has its own economy; you can get a job, buy a house, open a business. In Perfect World you can even get married. Toby has a Perfect marriage to a woman called Hakura – a relationship which, since they’ve never met in Reality, is conducted entirely through their respective avatars. And, most disturbingly, in Perfect World you can also lose it all, and end up living in digital squalor, a member of a virtual underclass, forever denied access to the consumerist pleasures of digital reality.
That’s what I like the most about the Perfect World concept, actually – how quickly the problems of this world seem to have been transported over there. When Toby visits his virtual flat to escape his boring train journey, he’s immediately occupied by mundane tasks. He deals with the junk mail (pleasingly, God decided He would make this appear as actual cans of Spam). He checks the fridge. He opens his mail. He has a low-grade argument with his wife about a speeding ticket, and they talk about the cost of the new, much better fridge they’re getting delivered that afternoon and who is going to wait in to check it’s installed properly. Of course, his apartment is far nicer than he could afford back in Reality, and he has actually managed to persuade a woman to marry him. But it’s quite satisfying that – even when we get to create our own world entirely from scratch and can do whatever the hell we like – we still give ourselves pointless and menial household chores, annoying delivery men, and household appliances with built-in obsolescence.
From this fantastic opening, the book gallops along with the speed and dizzying swerves of a racehorse on acid. While getting off the Bullet train, Toby accidentally picks a fight with a man in a sharp suit sitting opposite him, gets knocked out, and has to be rescued by God’s carer, Dr Griffin. Dr Griffin takes Toby to Elegant (a future incarnation of the Heligan estate???), and Toby achieves his ambition to meet God. Alas, God is now a sad, confused and possibly even senile old man, disenchanted with His own creation. And when Toby next checks in on his Perfect residence, he finds Hakura has been attacked by a man named Mr Addam…
Part of the joy of reading this story is the twists and turns of its plot, so I won’t spoil it for you by sharing any more. It explores the big stuff (the consequences of vast social inequity; the ethics of keeping people alive when they have no consciousness or hope of recovery), the high-concept stuff (the complex intersection between our Real and Virtual lives; the meaning of True Love in a virtual existence), and the little stuff (the special pleasure of getting drunk when you shouldn’t; the seemingly impossible amounts of food it’s possible to consume at a dinner-party). There are almost too many themes and ideas for this compact and tightly-written book to contain; my one criticism is that I wanted there to be more room for everything in there to breathe. Like the works of Philip K Dick, it’s bursting with great ideas and concepts that are thrown out, briefly examined and then discarded before I’ve had enough time to digest them.
But you know, that’s really more than okay. Sci-Fi, as a genre, is meant to make us think – to plant ideas in our heads that we obsess over for weeks afterwards. So when my only real problem with a Sci-Fi novel is that it contains a bit too much brain-stretching material for me to adequately get my head around, I’d say that’s a sign the author’s getting something pretty damn Perfect.
Just to get all my cards on the table, I had the pleasure of sharing a place with AJ Kirby in Legend Press’s “Ten Journeys” anthology (his story was “The Curious Case of Jenni Wen,” mine was “Interview #17”). “Perfect World” is available as a Kindle edition, for the how-could-you-not price of £2.85. “Ten Journeys” is also an Amazon Kindle book, price £5.51.