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Metrophage by Richard Kadrey



A few weeks ago I was in Pacific Grove and sauntered into what I thought was a coffee place (it was) but turned out to also be a bookstore -- Bookworks!  Pretty cool feeling to find a bookstore when you weren't even looking for one.  So, after enjoying our coffee and croissants, spent some time browsing the small shop.  I knew right away that Bookworks of Pacific Grove was an awesome bookshop when I saw the lone copy of Infinite Jest and its fat blue spine (the tenth anniversary edition) occupying a large slot in the bottom shelf of the CLASSICS section in-between the glossy sheen of brand new trade paperback copies of Lew Wallace's Ben Hur and Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men.  I told the gentleman manning the register how cool I thought it was that they stocked Infinite Jest in the CLASSICS section and he smiled, nodded, and replied that "it comes and goes often".

Ace Specials ed., 1988
Another book that comes and goes with even more frequency than Infinite Jest from the shelves of Bookworks, come to find out, if the kind tall man with a slight stoop in his step standing at the register was to be believed (and I saw no reason why he shouldn't be), is Metrophage by San Francisco-based freelance writer and photographer, Richard Kadrey.  "Couldn't keep those in stock when they first came in," he said, handing the copy of Metrophage I'd just purchased back to me in a white paper bag with handles.  I'd first heard of Metrophage in one of those science fiction best-of lists from yesteryear, and had never been able to find a copy.  Until walking unwittingly into Bookworks in Pacific Grove on the first Tuesday of August, 2015, that is.  Seems Metrophage had been out of print for years (it'd been published originally in 1988 by Ace Specials), until Harper Voyager reissued it as a "SIGNED FIRST EDITION" in late 2014.

Metrophage has essentially been my introduction to "cyberpunk" even though the genre has been around for thirty-one years since the release of William Gibson's innovative and instant-classic first novel sensation, Neuromancer, in 1984.  Of course elements of cyberpunk had been around since at least Mary Shelley's Frankenstein from way back when in the early nineteenth century (and I recommend reading Larry McCaffery's enlightening anthology on the subject, Storming the Reality Studio: A Casebook of Cyberpunk and Postmodern Fiction, for a superb and authoritative book-by-book chronological assessment of cyberpunk's genesis and evolution) but it was Neuromancer that pieced all the nascent elements of the genre's inchoate fragments together in such perfectly realized ways that it was obvious among the avant-garde science fiction/postmodernist crowds that something new in literature had just been born -- cyberpunk -- and its name was synonymous with Neuromancer, and it's father was William Gibson. I've no clue who could've been cyberpunk's mum.

"Storm The Reality Studio. And retake the universe."
~
William S. Burroughs, Nova Express
Enter Metrophage, stage left, four years later. Nearly thirty, Metrophage remains a vital novel; it reads as technologically and culturally relevant today as the day it was published (the latter I can only imagine); it is a novel that is not dated like the hair metal and synthesizers and Milli Vanilli lip-synckers that defined the music scene of the era in which Richard Kadrey's first novel was published. It's not dated probably because of its prescience on multicultural and sociopolitical fronts.  The intermingling of Asian and North American cultures is a prominent trope of cyberpunk, I've learned, from reading Storming the Reality Studio, which reminds us how well director Ridley Scott managed the America-Asia image-mix in so many of those futuristic scenes he artfully rendered in Blade Runner, but Kadrey tweaked the trope a bit adding Arab and Middle Eastern cultures to the mashup, and the imaginary Los Angeles (or "Last Ass" as the locals call their city) that he projected from the future back in 1988 bears an uncanny resemblance to the Last Ass I see and breathe today in 2015.

The sociopolitical zeitgeist of Metrophage took for granted the ongoing, ever present existence of the one percent/ninety-nine percent cultural divide/debate in the United States (I know I don't recall this reality in political discourse when the first Bush beat Dukakis in '88), and went so satirically over the top with the concept that when a young one-percenter, Jonny (I'd rank Jonny as a one-percenter, yet must acknowledge and allow for alternate perceptions that he's never explicitly described by Kadrey as being said one-percenter), the antihero of Metrophage; that is, when Jonny gets cornered by a poverty stricken septuagenarian gang of "discards and defectives" known as The Piranhas, wielding "the few weapons they could find, principally government-issued teeth--filed and set firmly in angry, withered jaws," he refused to shoot his way out through them with his high-tech Futukoro handgun/grenade launcher because he felt an irritating compassion/kinship for them -- imagine that, a one-percenter feeling compassion?, feeling sorry for and identifying with the poor beleaguered ninety-nine percent?) and so instead had to use his wits and his fists to escape from the septuagenarian's deadly dentures.  Does anyone now living in the United States who's not deluded, drugged out, outright crazy, a politician or overpaid C.E.O., doubt the reality of the one percent/ninety-nine percent divide in the U.S.A.?  The denizens of Last Ass were already taking the divide for granted when Richard Kadrey first envisioned them doing so in the mid-1980s, when Ronald Reagan was king; though, admittedly, the Last Ass denizens weren't even conceptualized then and so couldn't have been taking the one percent/ninety-nine percent divide for granted as early as 1968, when Reagan was just California's governor and J.G. Ballard, prescient as he was as a speculative pre-cyberpunky type of writer, somehow saw the imperialist danger lurking in plain goobernatorial (sic) sight a little over a decade away, and published his provocatively titled pamphlet that, to my knowledge, wasn't narrated by a real or fictitious woman named Nancy, "Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan," but, man oh man, I have digressed. . . .

Suffice to say, the good publishing people over at Harper Voyager knew what the hell they were doing reissuing Metrophage.  Perhaps the next time I stroll into Bookworks in Pacific Grove, Metrophage will also be shelved in the CLASSICS section, where it belongs, and by CLASSICS I do not mean CULT CLASSICS.

Comments

Séamus Duggan said…
Sounds interesting, although my shelves of sci-fi are crawling with unread books... and I was a little underwhelmed by Neuromancer.
Enrique Freeque said…
Glad to hear I'm not the only one bursting at the seams w/unread SF. I've heard conflicting reports on Neuromancer; I'll probably give it a try at some point. I was already biased toward Metrophage because it's an L.A. novel, and one of the best I've read since Steve Erickson's Days Between Stations.

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