Voices From Punktown by Jeffrey Thomas
Ever since the Scopes Monkey Trial, evolution has been one of these tricky subjects. Just how far are we allowed to go in considering the origin points of modern species without offending people? With the publication of another impenetrable book somewhat sardonically named The Grand Design (no intelligence required on the part of the reader), Stephen Hawking throws caution to the winds and argues no God was needed to light the blue touch paper to launch the Universe (and everything else that followed including the Garden of Eden). Thus encouraged, I press forward with a discussion of books like Prostho Plus by Piers Anthony and James White’s Sector General series, denying any possibility that they are metaphorical or any other kind of monkeys (or, perhaps, turkeys given shifts in modern taste).
How did we come to this sad place in which we think twice about exercising our freedom to look back honestly at what may have gone before?
Well, in Voices From Punktown by Jeffrey Thomas, we have the modern species of medical story called “Monsters”. In a hospital somewhere off in the Galapagos Nebula, Drs Conway and Prilicia represent the best of the Hippocratic traditions and offer interspecies medicine with a smile. Equally mired in the maws of the “different”, Anthony’s Dr Dillingham manages to survive as he hops from tooth to tooth, hoping his nemesis may extend his life expectancy. Essentially, these stories continue in the tradition of the Med Ship stories by Will F Jenkins in which Médecins Sans Frontières are welcomed into alien communities and thanked for their good works. Sadly, these authors had never heard of honour killings and similar misogynistic rituals. Not unnaturally, if a doctor comes between a family and its desire to discipline a wayward daughter, this is the fastest possible way to achieve roadkill status. “Monsters” therefore represents a degree of genetic drift so great that it falls off the edge of the gene map and into a new genre species. It’s a kind of sci-fi meets horror with an edge and I’m delighted to be able to welcome its first unsteady steps into the daylight.
Jeffrey Thomas is such a pleasing author who occupies a rare interstitial place on the genre map — one in which he writes about what interests him without regard to whether it really “fits” into preconceived genres. This relatively slim volume collects stories nominally sharing a setting in Punktown — although, in a sense, this is all rather arbitrary. Truth be told, they could be set anywhere and still be good stories. Nevertheless, we can smile benignly because, no matter what the excuse, it’s always good to read stories of such a consistently high standard. We start off with “Johnny Pharaoh”, an original to this edition and one of these entertaining stories in which mistakes are made and we work through logically to the conclusion. Suffice it to say it’s slip-ups like this that give a cloning shop a really bad rep. For those involved, you just wish you could go back to the beginning and start all over again.
“Do You Know This Girl” gives our shy guy the chance he so covets with a beautiful (if somewhat weird) lady except he’s not getting into quite the situation he expects. While “Mourning Cloak” is an affecting story dealing with that great imponderable — can there ever be real love between a prostitute and her John? Perhaps, in this case, the stakes are higher because the girl has been modified so she has the wings of a butterfly. She was genuinely exotic when first modified. Now age is catching up with her. As she approaches the end of her contract with the brothel, there’s a chance to consider the value of her life and her relationships with her wealthy clients. Perhaps there will be one last reason to spread those wings.
“The Reflections of Ghosts” a scripting of an earlier story as a graphic novel revisits the question of cloning, wondering whether a narcissistic artist really should risk cloning himself. “The Color Shrain” is a wonderful variation on the theme of how we come to depend on our abilities to earn a living. Sometimes, the difference between success and failure can be such a small margin but, when the employer is an unforgiving crime boss, even small margins can have big consequences. Thinking back through the inner workings of this story is a delight as everything clicks into place with the smooth action of a drawer closing in a bureau. “Trash” is one of those short, short stories that just feels right, smiles understandingly at us, and then moves on.
“Behind the Masque” is a Poe story and the third cloning story in which we deal with the consequence of the inevitable difference between the new physical body and the character and personality that inhabited the original. Actually, I hope Kaji is still around and learns of the loss of the collectible magazines from his library. He should savour the perfection of the “revenge” by purloining. “Forge Park” is another of these elegant meditations on the unexpected strengths of the common man. No matter how strange or alien the situation, it often comes down to one man to cut through all the bullshit cultishness and save the world. Well, perhaps that’s rather more the last story, “The Bones of the Old Ones” in which overtly Lovecraftian forces are pushing open the door, unleashing the hounds and threatening a full opening of the way. No matter which story, there’s a time in everyone’s life when they have to take up the sword (or whatever other weapons happen to be to hand) in defence of truth, justice and the human way.
Voices From Punktown is a 2008 edition but still available from Dark Regions Press. Well worth a look if you’re into edgy cross-genre short stories.
An edgy collection of stories based in Punktown. Well worth looking at if you’re into SF blurring into horror.