This review appeared in The Third Alternative #37:-
MAUL: TRICIA SULLIVAN
Orbit pb, 355pp, £10.99
This is a novel with two parallel storylines. In one of them, with her friends Suk Hee and Keri, Sun goes down to the mall to engage in a little retail therapy. Like all girls of their age they are dedicated followers of fashion and so carry the latest in firearms, but when trouble comes, a run in with a girl gang led by videoartist 10Esha, it turns out to be far worse than anyone could have expected and events spiral out of control until the whole mall is declared a danger zone and the National Guard are called in to take care of business. For Sun there doesn’t seem to be any way out from under. Meanwhile in the parallel track we get a world where nearly all the men have been wiped out by deadly Y-viruses; most of the survivors live in pseudo-medieval castles, and are highly prized by the women as breeding material. Scientist Maddie experiments on Meniscus, a cloned and mute male whose body may just hold the key to defeating the viruses, or perhaps even communicating with them, but there are certain parties with a vested interest in her not succeeding, and when Meniscus encounters Snake, a rogue male on the run from the authorities, the shit well and truly hits the fan.
There is the suggestion that all the events taking place in the mall are just part of a VR simulation in which Meniscus is resolving his own internal problems vis-à-vis the virus, but also hints in the conversation between the girls that their present is the past of the world in which men have become virtually extinct, or even that the world of Meniscus is itself a simulation, and a first impulse may well be to bemoan yet another novel in which the world is shown to be a VR construct, but while the Matrix comparisons can’t be avoided Sullivan’s use of such ideas is much more sophisticated; she refuses to lay everything out for the reader, instead offering us an oblique interplay between the two strands and leaving us to decide for ourselves what’s what in the reality stakes. Nor is this the only common reference point for the reader. The future setting with its female dominated society brings to mind several similar novels; Sullivan admits as much with a reference to Tepper’s The Gate to Women’s Country in the acknowledgements. Elsewhere we have the character Snake reprising the hero of Carpenter’s Escape from New York while some of the contests the men engage in reminded me of Running Man or even TV’s Gladiators.
None of this matters though; the verve of Sullivan’s writing and the wealth of incidental invention with which she packs the book is enough to sweep away any and all objections to its structure. There is something new on practically every other page, with enough throwaway ideas and inventions for half a dozen ordinary novels. For instance, the idea that viruses may be attempting to communicate with human beings, or use of the terrorbug, a virus that inspires irrational and unreasoning fear in whoever it infects. Elsewhere we have the dramatic picture of teen gangs running wild, video artists who stream events as they happen and hunt down the reviewers who’ve dissed their work (let’s not go there) and men living in huge castles where they compete with each other to become prize studs. And this is just the tip of a substantial iceberg. Sullivan piles it on and makes it all seem real, no matter how incredible. She is particularly good with regard to the characterisation, populating Maul with a cast of believable people, from Maddie, who is desperate for her research to succeed but finally remembers her humanity, to the incorrigible and larger than life Snake, the ultimate rebel without a cause in search of a system to buck; from gun toting, enigmatic and possibly psychotic Suk Hee, to the wonderful free spirit that is Sun, a crazy cocktail of raging hormones and attitude, obsessing about boys and fashion one minute, putting the world to rights in the next (your atypical teen in fact). And add to that the fact that Sullivan’s writing rocks, with a frenetic prose style that helps sweep aside any objections to credibility and leaves you gasping at her sheer audacity in putting such things on paper. Who can resist a book with chapter headings like ‘Extra Spooky with Sauce’ and ‘High Risk Dildo’? Who in their right minds would want to? This book is sexy and cerebral and action packed; in short, a whole lot of fun.