Steve Aylett is a criminally underrated author of satirical works across a variety of genres—“criminally” being the operative word as Aylett’s city of Beerlight is a cyberpunk landscape of corrupt and/or useless cops, powerful mobsters, and bizarre private defectives (no, that’s not a typo).
The Beerlight books seem to marry the cyberpunk vision of William Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy or Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, William S. Burroughs’ talent for utterly weird but comprehensible description, and the hardboiled stylings of Raymond Chandler or Elmore Leonard. That might make his work sound like pastiche, but the three novels and one-and-a-half short story collections that encompass all of the Beerlight stories are far too inventive and unusual to be anything other than completely unique.
Aylett’s books proceed at breakneck speed; they’re slender titles packed with more originality, insanity, and laughs than most of the larger tomes weighing down your bookshelves. Below you’ll find a rundown of the Beerlight books, including choice quotes and some of the fascinating science fiction concepts that Aylett employs…
They seemed the perfect underworld couple in all but their neglect to get shot repeatedly in slow motion.
The Crime Studio is a collection of short stories, all set in the city of Beerlight. It was the first of the Beerlight books, but it’s not the first one I read. In revisiting the books, I realized that The Crime Studio is almost entirely lacking in the trappings of science fiction. There’s a single mention of a plasma rifle and one character with a predilection for wearing mirrorshades, and that’s about it. If you read The Crime Studio without the context of the other Beerlight books, it could simply be a collection of stories about a town plagued by relentless criminals with over-the-top personalities, the desire to shoot first and ask questions later, and a deficit of intelligence.
Harpoon Specter was a con-man so adept at manipulating reality he could fall out a window and land on the roof—if he could make a few smackers that way.
The Crime Studio isn’t as weird or as dense with ideas as the Beerlight novels, but then, few books are. What The Crime Studio lacks in density and cyberpunk flavor, it makes up for in pure comedy.
Billy’s life of crime had begun in his late teens when he broke a bottle over a guy’s head and was arrested for impersonating a cop.
“Pounce if I’m outta some arbitrary line, Specter, but from what you say this demilout’s runnin’ hogwild over creation with no better motive than a gratuitous and luxurious will to do evil.“
Slaughtermatic opens with Dante Cubit and the Entropy Kid robbing a bank. The vault is fitted with a time lock that, when tampered with, will send the would-be thief twenty minutes into the future where the police are already waiting to arrest them. But Download Jones has given Dante a hack that will instead make the lock send him twenty minutes into the past so he can slip into the vault before the heist has even started.
Fifteen minutes after Dante trips through time, Dante Cubit and the Entropy Kid turn up to rob the bank, and things begin to unravel. Now there are two Dantes in Beerlight—one who is happily losing himself in the multilayered hypertext novel he stole from the bank, the other wandering and wounded, well aware that—as far as the universe is concerned—he’s surplus to requirements.
Harpoon Specter (the con man, turned lawyer) wants to unite the two Dantes, knowing this will lead to an explosive breakdown of space-time. But Tredwell Garneshee (arguably the only good cop in the city, as indicated by how much the corrupt chief of police hates him) is determined to destroy the extra Dante and save Beerlight from the threat of the two men meeting.
That up there is a lot of words for a short summary, and I haven’t even gotten to Chief Henry Blince and his sidekick Benny being trapped in a simulation of Beerlight when they go to arrest Download Jones, or Brute Parker’s attempts to assassinate one of the Dantes, or Dante’s lover Rosa Control and her wetware Squidgun, or any of the other Beerlight residents with their own subplots. Needless to say, for a book weighing in at just 150 pages, there is a lot going on here.
Each character talks like they’re the hero of a cyberpunk neo-noir gangster film, because they kind of are. The dialogue of Slaughtermatic is all twisted catchphrases, philosophical one-liners, and spiteful barbs, with Chief of Police Henry Blince getting most of the best lines:
Running, he thought about bugs and their external skeleton. Charmless but happy. People meanwhile buried their bones as deep inside as was physically possible. What were the creeps trying to hide?
Blince is a sort of genius bigot philosopher. That’s not to say he’s intelligent, but rather his aptitude for bigotry, corruption, and hatred is unsurpassed.
Yet to Blince, the only inherent value in apprehending the real culprit was that he’d be easier to frame.
The city is lousy with incredible feats of sci-fi invention, including a wide selection of unique weapons, like the Eschaton rifle which can manifest a person’s destiny (leading most targets to turn to ash, though occasionally one might ascend to a greater form of existence), the Kafkacell gun that lets the shooter see the point of view of whoever they’re targeting (meant to curb gun violence, it instead improved the aim of self-destructive shooters), and Blince’s demographic gun, which can be set to only target people of certain demographics.
It’s a blisteringly strange SF thriller, a slab of pure mischievous invention, and a scathing commentary on the police and court system, all rolled into one. If you only track down one book after reading this article, make it Slaughtermatic.
“If both the skull and teeth are made of bone, why bother with gums?”
Toxicology isn’t strictly a Beerlight short story collection, with only about half of the stories it contains being set in that insane city. But if you’re any sort of completionist, you’ll need to track this one down, and you’ll be rewarded with a selection of brilliant and succinct Beerlight tales. Where The Crime Studio is big on humor and perhaps lacking in high-concept sci-fi, Toxicology splits the difference, with fewer laughs per page, but with concepts only Aylett could think of.
In one story, Siri Moonmute commits so many crimes instantaneously that she forms a black hole in her apartment. In Tusk, the nephew of a mobster goes on a heist with some of the other mobsters but becomes attached to his elephant mask, refusing to take it off.
In another story, psychologist Dr. Shifa is put on trial for all the assaults committed by his patients, but is eventually saved by his own form of aggression therapy. And in Maryland, Johnny Failsafe realizes that the laws of two different states meet at a precise line at the border where “one barrage of restrictions gave way to another” and he starts selling samples of this border. When a disagreement at the border turns deadly, the corpse becomes a sort of holy relic, fought over by the police, Harpoon Specter, and the church.
Private cloaking systems took off when an inventor found he could go anywhere and be ignored so long as he carried a charity can.
Toxicology is a rich vein of Aylett’s particular brand of bizarre, and continues to reveal the author’s apparent hatred of mimes, chefs, waiters, pasta, and Charlie Chaplin.
“I’d like to thank my mom, my dad, my girlfriend Kitty, my parole officer and all the victims who made this possible. This execution’s for you.”
In Atom, Harry Fiasco is hired to steal Franz Kafka’s cryogenically frozen brain, but when he plans to give the brain to mob boss Eddie Thermidor instead of the original buyer, Taffy Atom is brought in to secure the valuable item. The only problem is, Atom is a “private defective” in the gumshoe modality, who’s too interested in surrealist pranks and pithy one-liners to take any job seriously, no matter how well-paying it may be, and no matter how many people are threatening to kill him.
In Atom, Aylett turns the dial right up on the detective-noir aspect of the Beerlight books. Whilst the other stories may contain mobsters, hitmen, brushes with the law, and intrigue aplenty, Atom delves deep into noir tropes. Atom even opens in the classic fashion—with someone coming into Atom’s poorly-lit office hoping to convince him to take the job. Though, unlike standard detective fare, here the customer is attacked by Jed—Atom’s pet man-faced, sentient, dog-sized piranha.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” said Atom, if you’ll indulge me. I have assigned a musical note to every grade of human lie. Here’s my rendition of the President’s inaugural address.” And he took out a clarinet.
And it only gets stranger from there. There’s Atom’s impossible performance at a mob-run night club, the time bomb that catches Atom’s would-be assassin and forces him to live out the same two hour chunk of time for half a year, and the persistent bestiality rumors following the President in the lead-up to his visit to Beerlight.
Behind the bar hung a photo of Roni Loveless, the boxer who, ordered to throw a fight, burst through an inner struggle to beat not only his opponent but everyone in the arena and its locality in an outward-blooming explosion of violence against suppressive mediocrity.
The book closes in the whodunit tradition, with Atom bringing together all the players to reveal not just how the bizarre case unfolded, but also the insane story they’ll need to tell Chief Blince to keep him off all of their backs.
She slapped me twice. The first slap knocked the cigarette out of my mouth, the second put it back.
Novahead is the final Beerlight book, and it sees Taffy Atom returning to the city after a long hiatus, much like Aylett himself. In Atom’s view, the city has become stale and lifeless, but nevertheless he is dragged into one last case, and it’s a doozy. Various factions in Beerlight are after a teenage boy whose brain has been made into a weapon of mass destruction—all it needs is one original thought to act as the trigger.
[…] and a glass-fronted box on the wall with a sign saying FOR BROKEN GLASS BREAK GLASS.
It trades the third-person perspective-shifting of Slaughtermatic and Atom for a ride right inside Taffy Atom’s head. It makes for a book that isn’t quite as dense as those other two novels, but it’s a necessary shift because so much of Novahead is about Taffy (and, I suppose, Aylett) saying farewell to the city.
Aylett’s predilection for unique firearms is on display again, with some favorites from previous stories making an appearance, as well as a few new ones. This fascination with guns reaches its logical conclusion when a weapon gains sentience—giving a whole different meaning to the term “gun rights” —and becomes the god of a new religion.
The book’s most interesting idea in the sci-fi mold, though, is likely the pocket of reality that Atom and his lover Madison have turned into a home and safe house, to ride out the slow death of humanity. It’s not the hidden safe house itself that is so interesting, but rather what it says of Atom: it’s mentioned multiple times that Atom is just a personality he wears (a “fiction suit,” to quote Grant Morrison), and his ability to step outside the world seems like a parallel to the author’s ability to step outside the story.
The only way he’ll enter heaven is climbing over the wall with a knife clenched between his teeth.
Novahead unfolds with madcap violence, inventiveness, densely philosophical conversations, and a car chase of such manic insanity it puts even Mad Max: Fury Road to shame.
Readers tend to quote my stuff to their loved ones while gasping with laughter, so for every rabid fan a minimum of one bitter enemy is created. —Steve Aylett to Warren Ellis
Satire and epigram are two of the weapons Aylett employs in the Beerlight stories, waging his one-man war against the banality he sees in much writing, and it is the combination of these two elements that make the Beerlight novels so memorable.
Satire allows Aylett to push the boundaries of technology, good taste, and common sense, and to bend or break the laws of physics within the Beerlight city limits. It renders a city beset by constant, cartoonish violence, but one which is utterly recognizable thanks to the way it reflects the ills of society—including the corruption of the police and the inadequacies of the legal system.
Aylett uses epigrams to pack his books with backstory, anecdotes, and description without interrupting the flow of the story. An idea that another author might spend a paragraph, page, or chapter exploring, Aylett will detail in a succinct and pithy line.
“That epigram thing—I like it because it doesn’t waste time. It can get stuff out of the way in a line that someone else would spend a whole book doing.” —Steve Aylett, 2002 interview
But if satire and epigram are two of the things that make Aylett’s writing so unique, they’re also part of the reason why you maybe haven’t heard of him. These are dense books that will expand your vocabulary, and maybe even your mind. They are well worth your time, if only because you’ve never read anything quite like them before.
I’m going to hibernate and be private for several years. When the tardigrades were brought back into a liveable environment they came to life again. I don’t expect the culture to become more fertile, so the conditions for me publishing again will be personal, not about the environment. Meanwhile I’ll be a frightening party clown or some sort of mutant lobster that clings to the side of buildings. —Steve Aylett, 2016 interview
Corey J. White is a writer of science fiction, horror, and other, harder-to-define stories. He studied writing at Griffith University and is now based in Melbourne, Australia. Killing Gravity, his debut novella from Tor.com, will publish on May 9th, 2017. Find him at coreyjwhite.com and on Twitter at @cjwhite.