|Image from http://elsewhen.alnpetepress.co.uk|
Mike French (text) and Karl Brown (artwork)
Elsewhen Press, 2015
PB (graphic novel size), 202pp
Source: Review copy from publisher (for which I'm very grateful)
This was the strangest book I'd read in a long time.
It's not an ordinary story, told largely through text with perhaps a few illustrations.
Nor is it a graphic novel, with text and pictures deeply intertwined in the storytelling. Rather, it plays with forms. Sometimes, a single picture supplements the text. Sometimes, a series of images follow it, adding atmosphere and detail and indeed, spinning whole new lines of plot that weren't suggested in the text.
And sometimes, the pictures come first, setting up the written part.
And throughout the continuity of the illustrations cast allusions over the text, hinting or showing things never overtly described. Literally, show not tell. The illustrations therefore add a whole new layer of meaning to what would be perfectly good stories in themselves, suggesting correspondences between characters or events in the universe of An Android Awakes that simply wouldn't otherwise be there, giving the book real depth and resonance.
It is the near future. Far enough ahead that intelligent, self-conscious androids seem common - though close enough to now that it seems plausible for one of those androids to be driving a 1964 Ford Mustang Convertible. Driving, because in this book androids seem to have taken on all the roles of humans. Our hero, Android Writer PD121928, lives the life of an aspiring author, continually getting rejection letters from his publisher. The book is mostly composed of PD's stories, with some linking narrative so is in some sense a short story - and as such collections will do, it illuminates the author's life and concerns.
PD's wife Samantha has been disappeared by the publisher and he's provided instead with an allowance for prostitutes. It's as though somebody, somewhere has settled on a certain idea of the bohemian writer's life and is trying to make it real, but without really understanding the reality. So a book is rejected for being one word too long, and the reasons given for rejections actually get more bizarre after that. One might suspect that these aren't real responses, just patterns generated by Markov chains from some immense database of rejection letters...
PD has a deadline: he only gets so many tries before he's deactivated, and as the rejections mount he becomes ever more erratic - for example giving successive stories the same number, which seems to fool the system, at least for a bit. But the stories also get better and better. They begin to refer to each other, to feature common characters and themes. Some of this reflects PD's own situation - with frequent occurrences of a lost wife or husband and references to that same car - while others, perhaps, hint obliquely at how the androids came to rule (they clearly do). The stories feature human astronauts and explorers and describe the bizarre fall of the human race. They also show glimpses of the development of androids as humans replace parts and subject themselves to gruesome augmentation processes. There are also repeated glimpses of a shadowy organisation, the Bureau of Scientific Discoveries, and of android bounty hunters stamping out conspiracy theories. Parts are distinctly noirish in tone. Mockingbirds - rarely killed - recur constantly. Somewhere in all this, once senses, are the stories of PD himself but also of the near future world he inhabits. But it's broken, fractured, seen through a Kaleidoscope.
The stories are very good in themselves, even without this sense of a larger whole, of a wider story. Some are very funny: for example the android thief who steals buttons (including robbing banks for them) or the superhero angels who Fight Crime but are brought down by a prudish bishop who objects to their nakedness. But the connections between them are such that you'll want to read and re-read, to go back and check things, hunt through the pictures for references: this book is a ramified, knotted artefact, existing beyond the normal two dimensions of the page - or perhaps I should say it's non Euclidean, both the generator of a warped space and acted on by that warping.
I'm not really sure if it has a beginning, a middle and and end - something I was taught in O level English was the very essence of a story - however, it clearly is a story, complex, immersive and deeply, deeply weird. Reading it is a truly different experience and I urge you to draw up a cool can of oil, rest your servos for a bit, and interact with it through your optic sensors...
For more about An Android Awakes (and it's a fascinating more!) see here.