Maul - Tricia Sullivan

Reviewed for Usenet (or see Google archive).

Tricia Sullivan
Orbit Publishers
ISBN: 1841493120 (Amazon link)

There's a review with Tricia Sullivan on Crowsnest in which she comments that "SF in Britain is superb these days" and namechecks the excellent Jon Courtney Grimwood and Justina Robson in particular. Having read new novels by both of them this year, I agree strongly. Justina Robson returned the favour by reviewing Maul favourably in The Guardian recently, and I'm going to agree with her too because Maul is a terrific SF novel.

It's not really surprising I liked Maul as Tricia Sullivan has written three other strong SF novels, all of which I liked. The last of these, Dreaming In Smoke, won the Arthur C Clarke in 1999. I also went into Maul intrigued as before the main text Sullivan explicitly acknowledges the influence of Matt Ridley's The Red Queen, Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel and The Gate to Women's Country by Sheri S. Tepper - a curious mixture that clearly outlines the ambitious themes of the novel.

There are two plot threads to Maul, one contemporary, and one far future. The first has the sharpest writing, but fewer overt SF elements. It follows a group of teenage girls, Sun Katz and her friends, on a typical day shopping in the Mall - the Maul of the title - in a contemporary setting. Well, a typical day if the teenage girls you know start the day by masturbating with a gun, then setting off wearing it for a showdown with a well known net media girl gang at a perfume counter.

"The gun straps to the inside of my leg with Velcro. It's not the absolute zenith of fashion to do this, but girls who wear theirs with leather straps and buckles aren't serious: with Velcro you can get at the thing when you need it.

I have a pink ammo belt. It's heavy, but who said fashion was easy?"

Things go badly awry for Sun and her crew when the showdown with "10Esha" and her gang turns more serious than they expected - the situation escalates and soon bullets are flying, with Sun desperately trying to rescue her friends, and escape from a mall now locked down by the police. Sullivan takes no prisoners with this plot thread, revelling in the vicious shock value of her teenage protagonist and her twisted world-view. However, despite her fascination with external appearances Sun does have a brain in her head, and her ruminations on the interrelationship and function of her two consumerist fascinations, fashion and men, lay out the themes for the second plot thread.

At some unspecified point in the future men have all but been wiped out by a Y-plagues, with the few survivors quarantined away in 'castellations', competing each year in the 'pigwalk' for the privilege of donating sperm for the women of society. Naturally, few can enjoy high-quality sperm direct from the winner - most will be receiving theirs courtesy of some bio-engineered swine, or producing clone daughters with the help of another woman. Real, bio-diversified natural children from the union of an egg and a sperm are a mark of prestige, of wealth and power.

Maddie is a scientist, working on variants of Y-plagues, and assassin bugs. She is not important enough to ever have a chance to produce a 'real' child, though she does have a clone daughter Bonus. Her primary study subject is the Y-autistic Meniscus, who has spent his life living in a hermetically sealed cage, infected with several varieties of experimental bugs, slowly killing him while Maddie tries to understand the mechanisms involved. Meniscus' clone-father asked him not to speak when Maddie took over the project, so he doesn't, suffering in silence as the bugs slowly consume him. His only escape is The Mall, a software simulation into which he can retreat, and which has somehow become inter-related to the level of infection activity in his skin.

It's soon clear that there is a relationship between Meniscus' Mall and Sun's Maul, with one acting as a symbolic representation of systems in the other. Things move into high gear in both plot lines when Maddie gets drawn into a plot involving exposure of a wild male to Meniscus, infected with several lethal varieties of plagues which should make short order of the interloper. Maddie is of course tempted by the possibility of access to a Pigwalk's genetic legacy, but quite unprepared for the effect a wild male might have on both her staff and Meniscus himself. Worse, things don't go as planned for the conspirators, and Bicyclefish sympathisers among the staff are presented with an opportunity to act on their beliefs. Plenty of speculation here about the evolutionary battle between bugs and the higher animals, about the purpose of sex, and some fun with nano-technology and genetic engineering, all wrapped up as throwaway dialogue between a few characters obsessing over chocolate, social drugs, continued funding and how to get their hands on a real man.

Clearly in both plot strands there is a strong element of satire, and the cultural critisicm in the Mall thread especially is fierce and often very witty, with Sun's slang heavy delivery of cutting aphorisms a joy to read. The Meniscus thread is more thoughtful and contains much more overtly SFnal ideas, but felt less snappily written, particularly in the Big Finale set pieces. However, there is a lot of fun to be had in seeing Sullivan have a jab or two at past novels on similar themes to make up for the difference in writing style.

I didn't honestly think the big picture gelled too well (to be fair the author admits the science is "pure fudge" in the intro) but I had huge fun reading this book and cheerfully applaud the author for tackling these issues in such a bravely structured novel, as well as taking big risks in writing style - how could she have thought, "I know, two narrators - female teenage mall-rat and cage bound autistic male lab-rat. How can the reader not empathise?"


Posted: Sat - December 13, 2003 at 01:26 AM