It has been almost five years since Tricia Sullivan last graced us with a science fiction novel. That offering, Dreaming In Smoke, cemented her reputation as rising genre star and brought her the 1999 Arthur C. Clark award as confirmation. Since then she’s been quiet – though if the rumors are correct, the publication during Sullivan’s absence of the accomplished fantasy novels of Valerie Leith suggest that the author has been far from idle.
Pseudonyms aside, Sullivan announces her return to SF with a battle cry – Maul is a needle sharp, attention grabbing work that, had the playwright Mark Ravenhill not already bagged the title, might have been aptly called Shopping and Fucking.
Maul follows a tight two strand plot structure – in the first, an almost contemporary American shopping mall plays host to groups of trés cool teen girls who converge to have it out gang style. These kids take no prisoners. The bullets fly and chaos, death and destruction rain down amidst the racks of designer clothes and the make-up counters. This initial melee develops into a siege, with the various factions seeking to outwit both each other and the impotent police. Parallel to this is another future in which the male population has been all but decimated by a Y-Plague. The inevitable result is a matriarchal society in which the few remaining men are much sought after for their sperm. Sure, babies can be cloned here, but the real thing is what women really want. Viruses and bugs are cutting edge science and R&D big business. We follow the research on Meniscus, a male subject who has been injected with an experimental bug and his suffering is truly painful to behold. Though little more than a lab-rat to begin with, the bugs affect Meniscus in a number of ways, but when a rogue male, one impervious to the Y-Plague is introduced into the study, the results are far from those desired.
Certainly Maul is an impressive return to the field for Sullivan. She is a gutsy, bold writer, unafraid to take her themes by the balls and happy to squeeze hard in the process. Thus Maul is a platform for various rants – on consumerism, on the empty-headed culture of the video game generations, and on any number of gender issues that will have this novel high on the list for the Tiptree award (http://www.tiptree.org/). A wonderful example of how Sullivan draws many of these themes together (and this happens often) can be found in the following passage, spoken by Sun, the teen girl protagonist, who is reluctantly allowing herself to be seduced by her friend’s boyfriend in the middle of the mall siege.
Many such shrewd philosophical nuggets live within the pages of Maul, but in themselves they are not sufficient to carry the novel alone, and though these insights are conveyed via some superbly rendered characterisations, I felt Maul to be a tricky novel for the reader to engage with. Challenging and stylish though it undoubtedly is, it is marred by some stylistic problems - the over-enthusiastic use of acronyms for example tends to lead to some confusion, as does an inconsistency with tense usage. Quite how the two distinct story threads interrelate is unclear too – all the way through, the reader knows the threads are linked somehow, but the promise of a revelation is unfulfilled and the ending spirals into chaos leaving much unresolved.
These nitpicks aside, Maul is an impressive and punchy work, in some ways reminiscent of Flowers For Algernon and the more recent Elizabeth Moon novel The Speed Of Dark . Meniscus plight is equally absorbing and Sullivan’s return most welcome.