Science Fiction Book Review

Karloff's Circus

(2004) Steve Aylett, Gollancz, 9.99, pbk, 128pp, ISBN 0-575-07089-7

This is the fourth (and last) of the 'Accomplice' books and follows on from Only an Alligator, The Velocity Gospel and Dummyland. Our hero, Barny Juno, is still a target for the demon Sweeney (for taking an unauthorised shortcut through the creepchannel back in the first book) and the demon king now makes an alliance with Karloff and his circus to bring about Barney's demise. Karloff, of course, has his own score to settle with Barney, who stole (freed) one of the circus's lions. Meanwhile Barney's house seems to be disappearing, plank by plank, and the mayoral elections gather pace. Will Doomed Eddie Gallo defeat Mayor Rudloe now that the latter has the demon Dietrich Hammerwire on his team? And what will happen to the zombie, Fang, when he rejoins the circus and his trapeze artist zombie brothers? Can Gregor go the distance when he is matched against a slob demon? And will Barney ever get back his true love, Chloe Low? When the Circus of the Heart's Shell takes over Accomplice's town square for the big top, only one thing is for certain: blood will be shed...

I'm not sure how useful comparisons are. Prominently displayed on each cover is a quote from Interzone which likens Aylett to Edward Lear, Ken Kesey, Philip K Dick, Kurt Vonnegut and Damon Runyon. But, equally applicable in my opinion, would be William Burroughs, Albert Camus, Franz Kafka and, most of all, Hunter S Thompson. Aylett and his fiction can be hard to describe: it's surrealism, it's satire, it's fantasy, it's science fiction (though not 'hard' SF). Fact is, it's a lot of things, all of them good, all of them funny, some of them confusing and most of them touching. I suppose what appeals to me most about Aylett's writing is the sheer exuberance and inventiveness that can take a sentence, twist it through an unfathomable angle, and layer on meanings and associations that enrich the text. There's a real sense of Aylett's joy in playing with words, a sense of fun, that is still mingled with acute observation. Of the world, of politics, of bureaucracies, and of the general unfairness and unpredictability of life. Yet, despite a healthy dose of cynicism, his books never become dour or miserable, but stay cheerily upbeat like the characters they contain. With tongue firmly in cheek the back cover blurb proclaims that "this may well be the Rosetta Stone of the four Accomplice books", but I wouldn't count on it if I were you. It might help to read all four books together, now that they're all out, but I wouldn't count on that either. I do recommend Steve's fiction, but usually with the caution that you should just accept it on its own terms. Accomplice is as good a place as any to start (if any of the comparisons above pique your interest), though it's well worth indulging yourself in those books set in Steve's 'Beerlight' universe, such as Slaughtermatic and Atom as well.

Tony Chester

You can find other Steve Aylett reviews on this site. Previous ones include: Atom, Only an Alligator, Dummyland, The Velocity Gospel and Toxicology. But check the Fiction Index for later ones.

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