Review: Jesus and the Eightfold Path (Lavie Tidhar), The Joy of Technology (Roy Gray), Paintwork (Tim Maughan)
Small presses and authors have always employed a variety of techniques to release prose and poetry into the world. Back in the Nineties, self-publishing became affordable and many wannabe novelists turned to it as an alternative to the big publishers. Unfortunately finding good or even competent – self-published authors felt like searching for needles in rotting haystacks and most reviewers took to avoiding the form entirely, exacerbating the difficulty of identifying what was worth reading. This still holds true today to a great extent. Five years ago, one popular option among small presses was to release limited runs of signed hardbacks. Good sales were guaranteed thanks to small but dedicated fanbases and book collectors hoping to make a killing on some future JK Rowling. We still see this approach today, although it is reduced. Over the past few years, chapbooks have enjoyed something of a renaissance. In New York, an annual chapbook festival has run since 2009 and the date is likely no coincidence; since the financial crisis that began in 2008, the idea of books that are cheaper to produce and purchase is alluring.
This brings me, in a roundabout fashion, to Lavie Tidhar’s Jesus and the Eightfold Path, Roy Gray’s The Joy of Technology and Tim Maughan’s Paintwork. These three books represent a cross-section of the approaches to publishing I’ve described above. Tidhar’s novella is a limited-run hardback from a respected small publisher, priced high at £10. Gray’s The Joy of Technology, under 40 pages long and priced at £3, fits the definition of a modern perfect-bound chapbook. Finally, Maughan’s collection of three short stories is self-published via Amazon’s CreateSpace print-on-demand service and also available as an ebook.
Jesus and the Eightfold Path began life as an irreverent brain-nugget: the story of kung-fu Jesus. The final result is less cheeky than you might imagine, fusing classical Chinese novel Journey to the West with the life of Christ as recounted in the New Testament. Plenty of liberties are taken, of course; in Tidhar’s tale Sun Wukong, Zhu Bajie and Sha Wujing (“Monkey, Pigsy and Sandy”) do not travel to India to protect the Bodhisattva on his quest to retrieve sacred scrolls but instead voyage to Judea to find the child who is the reincarnation of the Buddha. They are the three wise men who witnessed the newborn Christ, although in this version they eschew excessive wisdom, preferring to indulge vices: food, fighting, women, the usual heroic stuff. The story spans the life of Christ from before birth to shortly after his death, touching upon many of the most memorable Biblical fables – overturning the tables of the moneylenders, now with added kung fu; his love affair with Cleopatra, which was definitely in there somewhere; and ruining the livelihood of local farmers by filling their pigs with demons.
The book is a characteristic example of Tidhar’s writing and storytelling; it repurposes the mythic with a deft touch that retains some degree of familiarity yet introduces enough difference to produce a stark sense of contrast. It also has his characteristic lightness of tone juxtaposed with gravitas and respect for his subject matter. It’s rarely wildly funny but produces plenty of wry smiles. Readers who enjoy laughter lines will find this book does actually crease them up.
However, it inevitably feels episodic; a side-effect of re-telling the life of Christ in under 70 pages. We leap from one set-piece to another and Jesus rarely feels like more than the fulcrum around which the story pivots; even his kung-fu skills provide only intermittent thrills. Still, Monkey, Pigsy and Sandy prove to be fun characters, Roman-Judean agent Josephus Flavius helps lend the last act some thematic weight and the conclusion rings true to its Judaic and Buddhist roots. As a story it could have been longer but that may have led the concept to overstay its welcome. As a result we have this enjoyable compromise.
Roy Gray’s The Joy of Technology follows a young British teenager whose father is taking him over to the continent for his birthday. Ostensibly they’re off to see a football match but his dad has other plans: they’re off to a titty bar! Except this is skiffy so it’s actually a “Prap Club”, a sort of simulated sex show. A simultaneous plot strand follows the owner of said club and the consultant he’s hired to improve the show he’s putting on; the debut of the new act will coincide with young Dennis Platt’s visit.
The Joy of Technology is amateurishly written, replete with unconvincing dialogue: “I’m the new manager of ‘Due Freuden der Technik’ a prap club and I am hoping you can help me improve our show.” The world never feels like more than a thin film surrounding the characters we’re reading about and the setting doesn’t convince. The only futuristic elements are a few bits of tech: the aforementioned “prap” and Dennis’s “Specx”, goggles for playing games and watching videos. SF short stories don’t demand extensive worldbuilding but they do require internal consistency and the paucity of futurism and the unexplored technological consequences of tech like the prap sticks out like a sore bum. The story is also a rather ugly articulation of the sex divide: its only female characters are three support structures for orifices and a young girl who Dennis fancies. As for the men, the adults are sleazy scumbags and Dennis is a typically shallow horny teenager. Dennis is at least somewhat sympathetic – until the end of the story when he says something very ugly to his crush. It’s obviously intended to re-frame what’s gone before as dehumanising but, thanks to limited foreshadowing, the story is left feeling like a confused sequence that is 90% Bad Sex Award titillation and 10% awkward moralising. Probably much like how sex with a Mormon feels.
One moment I did find amusing was a crowd of punters with their dongs encased in VR get-up shuffling into the prap show. The mental image is hilarious and the abashed docility of the crowd is the one point where the story knowingly presents these men as pathetic. Also worthy of note is the meta-joke inherent in how the two plot strands meet at the story’s, ahem, climax. Overall though, this chapbook reads like a first draft of an at-best average story.
Tim Maughan and Paintwork’s three short stories may be familiar to devotees of Bristol’s SF scene. The titular first story follows an augmented reality street artist as he sets up a sequence of AR installations themed around his home city only to see them sabotaged. It’s a strong start to the anthology. Maughan draws on Bristol’s vibrant street art culture and its urban environment to paint a story that feels wholly convincing, from the environment and tone through to the characters that inhabit it and the art commenting upon it. The conclusion is somewhat unexpected with a cynical edge that fits the story’s theme.
‘Paparazzi’ follows an aspiring yet struggling documentary filmmaker who is hired to covertly film a top online gamer’s avatar. Its a story immersed in modern gaming culture with the massively multiplayer online game it presents feeling like something that could actually exist (plus it features a sly jab at the fascinating EVE Online so bonus points for that). Its narrative twist can been seen coming but is a cynical, world-weary delight all the same.
The final story, ‘Havana Augmented’, moves from the UK to Cuba, following some smart teens who jury-rig a pirated game into a VR experience with their native Havana as its arena. After videos of the game leak online the Cuban authorities get involved and soon capitalist sharks from the world outside are circling. The story again nails the sense of fun and jury-rigged invention that can characterise modern gaming. Havana, too, felt convincing, with even minor characters feeling like individuals with interior lives that we only glimpse.
This was my first encounter with Tim Maughan’s fiction but it won’t be his last; his tales convincingly integrate futuristic gadgetry into their setting and his characters and their culture are built around these solid foundations.
There is little linking these three books in subject, theme or market positioning outside of the obvious genre connection. What they represent is a variety of approaches toward getting fiction into the hands of readers. They are all tailored towards the niche end of genre fiction readership and they utilise different approaches to get there: either through presentation as a quality, durable hardback to be kept and cherished; a cheap pocket-sized chapbook that can be passed on to a friend once read; or in balancing supply precisely to the level of demand. Success of individual books aside what I find most interesting here is what this strategic diversity for delivery to market suggests about the genre small press: that it is flexible and that it is exploring different possibilities. This, to me, neatly encapsulates what the best SF can be.