Back To The Future — The Grim, Grimy, Chrome-Coated Future
Metrophage is not a new book. That’s important to understand right from the start.
Metrophage is, in fact, 26 years old. Published originally in 1988, it was Richard Kadrey’s first novel. If you know Kadrey today, it’s likely from his much more recent Sandman Slim books — which tread some (slightly) similar turf, but this is a reprint. A relic. Almost like a time capsule buried and half-forgotten and, now, just brought out into the light again all chromed and bullet-holed, dripping acid rain and goop. A freshly-jacketed re-issue from a techno-literary past almost impossible to comprehend unless, as the cool kids say, you were there.
And brother, I was there. 1988? That was prime mind-blowing time for me — just a nerdy kid still a little motion-sick from gobbling down all my dad’s freaked-out new wave sci-fi and fantasy books, just then discovering new wave’s junkie cousin, cyberpunk. I wore my mirrorshades proudly, and yet somehow, despite spending years with Brian Aldiss, William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, Bruce Sterling and Charles Stross, I’d missed Metrophage completely.
A cult classic is what they call it now — an early vision of dystopian L.A. which seems to brilliantly adopt (and occasionally prefigure) all the tropes which came to define cyberpunk — until you read the included interview between Kadrey and Cory Doctorow where he admits to unabashed thievery from every big name working at the time.
Which is cool. Which is, in a warped way, expected, since cyberpunk, as a splinter genre, deals primarily with characters who are doing you a favor if they’re only stealing your ideas — because that means they’re not also taking your wallet, your boots and the fillings out of your teeth.
Kadrey’s characters are certainly no exception. With Metrophage, he’s like a painter working in shades of scumbag. His main man, Jonny, is a killer and a smuggler, an ex-cop turned drug runner and thief whose primary life skills seem to be smart-assery and a gutter rat’s instinct for survival.
His compadres are anarchist revolutionaries, murder artists and underground clinic doctors (handy since Jonny gets injured on about every other page) — street level hustlers for the most part, working the fringes of a dying Los Angeles where food riots, gunfights, catching leprosy, dog fighting, alien invasion and getting shot in the face are all just what you do on a Tuesday night.
Plot? That’s funny … I mean, sure. There is one. It’s a double-triple-quadruple-cross noir clone that deals with an engineered plague that’s about to kill everyone unless anti-hero Jonny can get his act together long enough to stop it. But the plot exists (where it exists) as only a frail armature on which to hang a series of muscular, sharp and explode-y action sequences that exist in jagged syncopation with long, frenetic runs of joyous world-smashing where septuagenarian cannibals occupy abandoned dive hotels, space aliens threaten the world economy and teenaged cops from the Committee For Public Health police the streets with switchblades and neural disruptors.
Kadrey does cognitive dissonance like Gibson on acid, like Stephenson with his frontal lobe removed. He is shameless and frantic and, in places, completely amateurish (Metrophage is a first novel that reads very much like a first novel), but in the best possible way.
Because the book is just go-for-broke fun. Like a cyberpunk Repo Man. Like Kadrey wrote it in constant fear that no one would ever allow him to publish another word; like he had to jam in every idea he’d ever had (or borrowed) with no room for breath between them.
Every corner Jonny turns, there’s another sharp jolt of weird. And taken all together, it’s got a gleeful, anarchic edge to it that keeps you turning pages, even if only to see how long this crank-jangled mess can keep going before the wheels come completely off.
Yes, you kinda have to be a devotee of the chromed ’80s masterpieces to like Metrophage as much as I did. There’s so much in it that’s house style turned on its head, so much detail that’s informed by the stylistic devices and quasi-culture Kadrey was working with, that your mileage may vary depending on how much you geek out over hovercars and smoke-filled arcades.
But if you can open wide enough to swallow the thing whole and accept it for what it was when it was bright and young, Kadrey’s 26-year-old debut still has a magnetic, psychotic charm. And for those of you who come to it just for Kadrey’s name on the cover, look close and you can see, buried under the clutter of floppy disks, AK-47s and CRT monitors, hints of the writer he was striving to become.
Jason Sheehan is an ex-chef, a former restaurant critic and the current food editor ofPhiladelphiamagazine. But when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about spaceships, aliens, giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his newest book.