‘Freezone’ by John Shirley
After gargoyles and mermaids, this sounds much more like it. Freezone! It conjures up unfettered capitalism with a seamy underbelly. So it is a bit of a surprise to discover that the protagonist, Rick Rickenharp, is your dad.
First though, we have several pages of dire infodumping. Here is a particularly bad example:
The company that bought Disneyland and Disneyworld and Disneyworld II – all three of which had closed in the wake of the CSD: the Computer Storage Depression. Also called the Dissolve Depression.
Once this is painful scene-setting is dispensed with we are introduced to Rickenharp. He wears a fifty year old leather jacket alledgedly owned by John Cale (yeah, right), blue jeans, Harley Davidson boots and shades. “And he did all this because it was gratingly unfashionable.” It is certainly grating. Rickenharp is in a rock band, a rock band called Rickenharp, a rock band that plays proper rock. None of this modern flare or minimomo rubbish.
One of the first bits of advice aspiring writers are given is not to write about writing. Shirley has been in several bands, variously described on the internet as punk, post-punk and (alarmingly) post-punk-funk, and I kinda wish someone had given him similar advice about not writing about music. Shirley’s love of his subject matter and his lack of skill combine to form a frankly sickening narrative voice:
Without consciously knowing it, Rickenharp was moving to the music. Not too much. Not in the pushy, look-at-me way that some performers had. The way they had of trying to force enthusiasm from the audience, every move looking artificial.
No, Rickenharp was a natural. The music flowed through him physically, unimpeded by anxieties or ego knots. His ego was there; it was the fuel for his personal Olympian torch. But it was as immaculate as a pontiff’s robes.
I was cringing as I typed that. There are still 24 pages to go but I am going to pause here because I can’t take any more for the moment.
Okay, I’m back. Unfortunately that breather didn’t work very well because I still had to return to the story and find, on the very next page, this:
And like a horniness it had built up in them, like sexual energy, dammed behind their private resentments; and now it was pouring through the dam, and the band shook with the release of it as Rickenharp thundered into his progression and began to sing…
The audience stared at him with insistent hostility, but Rickenharp liked it when the girl played pretend-to-rape-me. Force it into their ears, man.
It is hard to top a line as profoundly awful as “and like a horniness” but making the metaphor all rapey certainly does the trick. Congratulations, Shirley. There then follows a pointless, jammed in interview fragment and a meeting with Dick van Dyke: “Oi sawr you at Stone’enge five years ago when you ‘ad your second ‘it.” Stonehenge again! Now it is drawing with Battersea.
Rickenharp then takes some drugs and wanders Freezone in search of a plot. He doesn’t find one but we do get a nice trip through an appropriately cyberpunk city. After the tour of the tech and the flesh it seems that the story is going to gently fade into nothingness. Unfortunately Shirley has one final treat for us:
“And when I get you alone I’m going to batter your cervix into jelly.”
“You think that kind of talk turns me on? Well, it does.”
Embarrassingly I’ve gone through life thinking John Shirley and John Varley are one and the same. I feel like I need to apologise to Varley.