November 06, 2014
Metrophage. By Richard Kadrey. Harper Voyager. $14.99.
This is a very good read that is not a very good book. In fact, it is a good read in part because it is not a very good book: the author is oblivious to issues that, with more experience, he would not have allowed to get through, and the result is a headlong plunge for readers into some very intense, helter-skelter action. Metrophage is more than a quarter of a century old – it dates to 1988 – and is Richard Kadrey’s first novel. It is set firmly in the cyberpunk genre, dwelling there with a purity bespeaking and reflecting the fact that a lot of it reads like hyped-up William Gibson (and if you think it is not possible to imagine Gibson being hyped-up, Metrophage will show how wrong you are). Kadrey throws a little bit of everything into the book, as if to see just what will stick with readers – and, remarkably, quite a bit does. That shows the talent that would later emerge in the Sandman Slim novels. But Metrophage is a standalone book, and although its anti-hero, Jonny Qabbala, is in some ways clearly a prototype of James William Butler Stark, he is a much less convincing character, seeming invulnerable one minute and in danger of instant annihilation the next (usually at the end of a chapter). There is a perils-of-Pauline feeling to Metrophage, for all its extreme darkness, considerable violence and modicum of sex. It is a thriller of the most basic sort, written explicitly to thrill and pulling out all the stops to do so. Kadrey just happens to have more of those stops than other writers do.
The plot is straightforward for this genre. Los Angeles in the near future (alternative near future, to be accurate) is a city in which income inequality has gone completely wild, with the favored few locked within secure compounds while everyone else scrambles for life in a Blade Runner wasteland of never-ending hunger, dog-eat-dog morality and occasional drugs to relieve the pain of both body and mind. Jonny supplies the drugs, in the usual amoral and self-involved manner of a traditional noir anti-hero who has not yet discovered that it will be his responsibility to save the world. As is also traditional, Jonny cannot be merely a streetwise drug dealer – he has to have a back story, preferably one involving shadowy authorities from whose evil clutches he has fled, seeking safety in anonymity. And so it is that Jonny was formerly part of a government organization that loosely enforced the law in Los Angeles, but gave up that somewhat respectable role to avoid being burned out by all the stimulants the government feeds its agents. The backgrounder is weak but is typical for the genre, and it lets Jonny stand out amid the denizens of the rapidly disintegrating city (and looks forward to Sandman Slim’s background and the Los Angeles he inhabits).
In the time-honored manner of dystopias and noir novels and films, Jonny’s past comes back to haunt him: the government suspects he is involved with things called the Alpha Rats, named for the double star Alpheratz, the brightest star in the constellation Andromeda – and although Jonny in fact knows almost nothing about them, he has to investigate the Alpha Rats to save his own skin. And speaking of skin: soon Jonny is also involved in trying to avoid and seek a cure for a horrible leprosy-like disease, a new, viral plague that has descended on Los Angeles like something of biblical proportions.
The plot complications are many, so many that it can be hard for readers to keep up, although Kadrey’s still-not-fully-formed style is so hectic, so frenetic, that it is hard to stop reading the book once you start: it really is difficult to figure out what will happen next, and it sometimes seems as if Kadrey himself, while writing Metrophage, was not sure. Among the book’s plots and subplots are government conspiracy, possible alien invasion, drug trafficking, lab-created disease (perhaps in line with fringe beliefs in the 1980s that AIDS had been lab-developed), an economically dislocated world (the book was written when many thought Japanese manufacturing and OPEC oil would conquer all), and Jonny’s relationship with Ice and Sumi, the two women with whom he lives. It can be difficult for readers to know just which plot will take center stage from page to page – but while that is a weakness of the book structurally, it is not one in terms of enjoyment, because the very uncertainty about what will happen next, to whom and in what way, is what keeps this very dark novel so entertaining from start to finish. Yes, readers need a reasonably strong stomach to get through some of the details; no, the ending, which essentially sweeps the scene clean of characters and sends Jonny off into the sunset or its equivalent, is not fully satisfactory; yes, the book teeters constantly on the edge of coming apart, although it never quite does; no, Jonny does not have the redeeming sense of humor that makes Sandman Slim such an enthralling character. All this is simply to say that the novel shows many signs of immaturity and of being derivative of other works in the cyberpunk genre – and, for that matter, of the works that influenced cyberpunk. But Metrophage also confirms that Kadrey has had plenty of talent for at least a quarter of a century: this may be a wild roller-coaster ride threatening constantly to veer off the rails, but it is so darn thrilling so much of the time that readers will enjoy reaching for the grab bars so they can stay aboard while getting pulled along. And then they will find out that there are no grab bars.