Wayne Simmons, Plastic Jesus (Salt Publishing, 2013)
Back in the days of the early eighties, when William Gibson coined the term “cyberpunk” and a bunch of other sci-fi writers of the same mindset jumped on board, cyberpunk was a very high-concept thing. Neuromancer left me feeling as if I were floating in space—even though Case is obviously supposed to be a degenerate, he’s still got that pristine feeling, you know? Crystalline-cold. And, man, Sterling was even harder to grok. As much as I loved the idea of cyberpunk, I ended up passing on most of it over the years because I simply didn’t get it. (The one exception since the mid-eighties has been Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, and even that took me almost a hundred pages to get to where it was compulsive reading.) Enter Wayne Simmons, a guy who up till now has been a specialist in zombie horror that comes from exactly the opposite direction; Simmons’ characters are working-class, low-rent, eminently empathetic. And all the sudden cyberpunk, or at least Simmons’ take on it, makes sense.
Plot: a number of parallel stories run through the first three-quarters of this novel. The one that gives Plastic Jesus its title centers on Johnny Lyon, a VR coder who has walked away from his job, his life, and everything else following the death of his wife. No one seems to care much except Sarah Lee, one of his co-workers. His boss, Garçon, barely notices—but when Garçon hatches a plan for a new VR and asks Sarah Lee who needs to be put to work on it, she sees an opportunity to break Johnny out of his self-imposed shell. Johnny reluctantly agrees…but the VR he creates ends up working better than he ever thought it would. Meanwhile, two enterprising—but not very bright—criminals have offed a dealer to make off with his stash of heroin—the only drug left illegal in Simmons’ bleak postwar landscape—and thus put themselves on the radar of Paul McBride, the island’s biggest importer of same. It doesn’t help that the dealer they took out was McBride’s daughter Kitty’s personal supplier. And McBride knows just the man to get to the bottom of this…
It should be obvious from that last bit that Wayne Simmons is into noir, that grungy, low-rent derivative of the mystery where every choice the protagonist makes is a bad one and the light at the end of the tunnel is always an oncoming train. I don’t think there’s a genre that can’t be enriched by an injection of noir (well, maybe not inspirational romance). It works here like a charm. Simmons’ trademark well-drawn characters and breakneck pace fit just as well in the sci-fi and noir worlds as they do in horror. I can’t make sci-fi comparisons, as I don’t have nearly enough experience in the genre, but when it comes to noir, the obvious comparison here is with George Axelrod—but Simmons is better at characterization. And while I wouldn’t say Plastic Jesus‘ mystery angle is more complex—these thieves almost seem to do their damnedest to get caught—it’s more involved. Which is interesting given that it’s basically a subplot. I’ve ended up spending most of a paragraph talking about a sidelight; it must have impressed me more than I initially thought.
Plastic Jesus is science fiction for people who don’t like science fiction. Mystery for nerds. Religious dystopia for action junkies. And unless I miss my guess, it’s going to be on my list of the best books I read in 2014 (a little early to say for certain, but I’d put money on it). You want to read this one, even if you don’t know it yet. ****