Reading this recent interview with Tim Maughan on the Sense of Wonder blog reminded me that I’ve been meaning to repost my Solitary Bee review of his short story collection Paintwork here. As you’ll see if you read the interview, Tim and I are very different sorts of writer: he despises nostalgia and escapism, which are my stock in trade. But while I’m rummaging happily through the toy box of discarded Sci-Fi tropes, it’s great to find someone writing science fiction that’s inspired by the real world. If you haven’t read Paintwork yet it’s very good value and highly recommended – and I hope it marks the beginning of a very important and successful career.
If you’d asked me before I read Tim Maughan’s debut collection Paintwork, I’d probably have said that ‘Hip, cutting-edge cyberpunk with a techno-rave attitude’ wasn’t really my cup of tea. The observation, familiar from William Gibson and other cyberpunk writers, that the street finds its own uses for cutting edge technology, is indisputably true, but I’ve never really sought out books and stories based upon it – my own imagination is stuck too firmly in the pre-digital age.
But luckily I happened to sit on a reading by Tim Maughan at last year’s Bristolcon, and I was immediately struck by both the crisply imagined near-future setting and the energy of the language. “...it wasn’t the gait-trackers, face-clockers or even the UAVs that got 4Clover in the end. The word on the timelines had said it was a Serbian zombie-swarm hired by an irate art critic that had tracked him down and smeared his co-ordinates all across the Crime and ASB wikis.“
There are three stories in this short collection, and each is is set in the same very near and very credible future. In the title story a graffiti artist called 3Cube stalks the mean streets of Bristol, hacking into the QR codes on virtual reality advertising hoardings to overwrite their corporate messages with his own artwork. In Paparazzi, which again takes place in Bristol, a documentary maker is hired by powerful players of a MMORPG to infiltrate the game and and secure incriminating footage of a rival faction. In the third story, Havana Augmented, two young Cubans hack illegally downloaded VR games into new and startling forms. Each story is short (the whole book runs to 102 pages), but they have a power that is missing from many much longer works, and they linger in the memory.
Personally, I liked Paparazzi the least, but that’s because I’ve never really played a computer game, and find it hard to visualise immersive VR environments or understand their appeal; it’s still a perfectly good story. I preferred 3Cube, busy replacing the advertisements of tomorrow with his own haunting artworks, and the young heroes of Havana Augmented, who hack and soup up their Virtual Reality robo-warriors as skillfully as the previous generation of Cubans augmented their 1950s American automobiles. There are some exhilarating moments as their massive, digital ‘mechs’ do battle in the streets of Havana. Indeed, all the stories capture the excitement of the technology that is coming our way. But, while they are far too subtle to be called ‘Dystopian’, these are not upbeat visions of the future. Dystopian stories are basically escapism, smashing up the real world with all its complex problems and replacing it with one which is ostensibly worse, but usually far simpler. The stories in Paintwork build on the far scarier notion that the future will be just like the present only more so. Each is about a talented young person who is trapped or tricked by the corporate interests which control their world – interests which have little use for them, or for their skills. The technology of tomorrow is, all-too believably, used purely in the service of selling us stuff , like the ‘spex’ which everyone in the world of Paintwork wears, allowing them to see the virtual reality adverts and logos plastered all over it. When the hero of Paparazzi is asked to meet someone at Starbucks he he just blinks at the Google Earth logo at the bottom of her virtual invitation and his spex show him a trail of football-sized coffee beans hanging in the air, leading up Bristol’s Park Street to where, “High in the sunny Bristol sky he could see a ten metre high latte hanging like a hot air balloon, the huge green arrow suspended from its underside pointing down at the store’s location.“
Of course, Google are actually testing VR specs as I write this. Paintwork is built around technological developments so imminent that in a few more years I suspect we’ll all have them: we’ll all be following trails of virtual coffee beans into the future. Tim Maughan’s achievement is to take these dawning possibilities and spin them into pacy, cynical, neo-noir short stories. I hope he’s got a novel in the works.*
(I notice on the Smashwords site it says that ‘This book contains content considered unsuitable for young readers 17 and under,’ so You Have Been Warned… but I’m not sure what the unsuitable content is. There are some four-letter words among the dialogue, but nothing you couldn’t overhear in the average primary school playground. It strikes me as a book that a lot of teenagers would enjoy.)
The ‘Hip, cutting-edge cyberpunk with a techno-rave attitude’ quote comes from Gareth L. Powell