Red Cells by Jeffrey Thomas
One of the features of life we find painful and, depending on where it’s located, embarrassing, is the cyst. As teens, we dread the appearance of acne. Later in life, the body’s cells may cluster together to form sacs, sometimes filled with air or fluids, and appear on the skin or internally. Fortunately, the majority of these cellular events are benign. If they are inconvenient, they can be treated and removed. Life goes on. But occasionally, the cyst is a symptom of a deeper underlying problem, and more aggressive responses are required.
Red Cells by Jeffrey Thomas (Dark Fuse, 2014) is a novella exploring the cyst, canker or boil which is to be found on the backside of the reality that is Punktown. Yes, once again, we’re back in this wonderful megalopolis with Jeremy Stake. For those of you who have yet to explore this city and the people who live there, Stake is a walking metaphor for the square peg who can almost always find a hole to fit into. All primary indicators of identity are binary. There are the purely physical characteristics of facial appearance, body shape, the learned style of autonomic movements in different situations, and so on. And then there are the intellectual and emotional characteristics that make up the person. Except, Stake is a mutant with chameleon abilities. He can literally change his physical appearance to match that of any other human (alien races are more of a challenge). During the so-called Blue War, this made him one of the most effective spies. He could go anywhere behind enemy lines, be anyone to gain entry to supposedly secure environments. But always he came up against the limits of his power. Perhaps it would have been better if, instead of being able to rebuild his own bones and flesh from the inside, he could absorb other body parts to create a kind of colony effect where different physical elements could be displayed as required.
In peace time, he’s a PI down on his luck. Of course, there are the bottom-feeding jobs of following unfaithful spouses, but little that give any real satisfaction. The fact his body is mutable doesn’t mean his mind changes. He’s the same person inside and so, when finances are stretched, he’s prone to take on different work. This time, he’s agreed to impersonate a drug dealer and go to jail in his place for six months. The money is good. All he has to do is keep a low profile and no-one will be any the wiser. There are only two things wrong with this plan. The first is the location of the prison. For generations, Punktown has had a major crime problem and struggled to find enough space to lock all wrongdoers away. Then a physicist developed a mechanism for creating a bubble in reality. This is an extension to the wormhole technology enabling ships to move from one region of space to another. For transport purposes, the hole is temporary. This sac sits mainly in a different dimension, more or less co-existent with Punktown. Access is through a single portal, but once inside, everyone is completely cut off in this spherical extrusion or intrusion depending on your dimensional point of view. It’s the perfect jail with escape impossible. Normally this would not bother Stake, but shortly after he arrives, he discovers there have been five unexplained deaths. The second problem is the arrest of the man Stake is supposed to be impersonating. Instead of keeping a low profile during the six months, the idiot went out and was caught committing another offence. Now there are two versions of him in the jail and Stake’s impersonation is revealed.
By any standards, this is a great set-up and, as always, Thomas writes with pleasing economy. There’s just one problem. Having invested great creative effort in setting the ball rolling, the plot is then rolled up and sent by DHL to the conclusion at maximum speed. To put it mildly, the second part is perfunctory and so loses both atmosphere and a proper pacing in the plotting. I hope Thomas can be persuaded to write a longer version of this plot so we can all get to savour the intricacies explored. As it stands, Red Cells should be viewed as a work in progress.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.