(2019) Tim Major, Titan Books, £8.99, pbk, 416pp, ISBN 978-1-789-09078-9
Titan Books are becoming a bit of a speculative fiction powerhouse these days, publishing Kim Newman, James Brogden, Mark Morris’ New Fears horror anthologies, James P. Blaylock, and many others. 2019 sees them publish Helen Marshall’s first novel, The Migration, and this much-anticipated novel by Tim Major.
In an event called 'The Fall', meteors struck the Earth, and where they did, people changed. They became 'Charmers', able to rejuvenate themselves every seven years by shedding their skins, creating Skins – people who are their double who instantly turn to dust, or ash, but some of them hang on to life a little bit longer and are whisked away by men in white coats to be looked after until they do “ash”. In the Britain that Major has created, the Charmers are viewed with suspicion because they have all the power, the influence and the wealth: that’s a useful side-effect of being regularly rejuvenated. Although not all of the Charmers are wealthy, such as teenager Caitlin Hext, still coming to terms with the death of her mother in a road accident and the effect it has had on her father and her almost hermit-like uncle who lives in a garden shed and is addicted to computer games, and other things.
To make matters worse, her first shedding is imminent, and she’s only a teenager viewed with distrust, or worse, by the students at the college she attends. Finally, on her seventeenth birthday it’s her turn to shed, but her doppelganger doesn’t instantly turn to ash and flees to her bedroom before being taken away. Caitlin is now a teenager in a quandary, her life even messed up than it was before, faced by the realisation that she has created a person identical to herself, except that person might be better, more human, than she is.
Investigative journalist, Gerry Chafik’s life is also about to be severely messed up, as her services are no longer required by the “Folk” newspaper. There is a story there, about the Charmers, her nose tells her there is one - a big one - but to uncover it she’ll have to go back to the source and the site of the Fall, and start digging into the past if she doesn’t dig her own grave first. Meanwhile hapless, lonely, skint, cringingly unworldly, Russell Handler is a “handler” for Government minister, Ellis Blackwood. His right-hand man, doing everything from serving drinks at soirees, to installing CCTV cameras at Blackwood’s home to babysitting his nerdy, computer-building son, Spencer. The minister clearly has secrets – taking calls, disappearing for days at a time and he is continually tired, almost exhausted. Then Russell is approached by a mysterious figure who calls himself Ixion, and asked to spy on his boss. Could he? Should he? If only to be closer to Ellis’ wife, Nell, because he feels attracted to her, and knows she needs protecting, but from what?
Thus, Major weaves three tales together and gradually they combine into one as secrets and shocking revelations are revealed.
This is not hard science fiction, this is science fantasy. Don’t think too hard about the shedding process or the events at the end of the novel, don’t slip out of the book like a new skin being created to think: “well, how does this actually work?” It’s the ramifications of these processes and events that are important in this alternative world that Major has created, which also serves as a political thriller, almost a spy novel, an espionage thriller, an adventure story, a “what if” or “what might have been” story, enhanced by Major’s unflinching characterisation and at times, deadly prose.
Given the Britain Major writes about and its almost isolationist place in the world which has hampered technological progress, the shambles of Brexit is an obvious connection to make with “Snakeskins”, but there are parallels to be made to those who have power and wealth – the haves and their pulling of society’s strings in their quest for further power and influence, and here, possible extended life, giving them the chance to amass more. After all, you can never have too much power, or too much wealth, or too much influence. But in a country where technology is stuck in the 1970s – home computers are a rarity, like non-chunky mobile phones and no-one has ever heard of DVDs, let alone streaming services – here, films seem to consist of Carry On… films and the produce of a few remaining British studios - it’s a nice comparison with our world with all its technological advances and attempts to extend life, and I’m sure one day the super-rich will crack the code and take their power and influence to the stars, after being space tourists first, if they haven’t already created their own body doubles in secret.
If I had any quibble at all about Snakeskins I would have liked to have found out what happened to the nurse, Ayo, who helps Caitlin and Kit, and was last seen rushing off to help someone else. Who? My lips are sealed, but I really hope he is still around somewhere. Who knows, we might bump into him in a sequel, although like most really good, unique books, I suspect Snakeskins, is a one-off, and Major has moved on to bigger and better things, but he’s set the bar high if he’s going to top this.
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