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Finally, for this week, and probably for this year, my review of Cyber Circus by Kim Lakin-Smith, which first appeared in Vector 270, late-Spring 2012.

cyber circusIn 1935, Charles Finney introduced us to The Circus of Dr Lao, which was a big influence on Ray Bradbury, who told us that Something Wicked This Way Comes in 1962. Since then, the circus has become a staple of fantastic writing. It’s easy to see why: the circus is colourful and mobile, it is an escape from the mundane and a threat to the status quo, it is a home for the beautiful and the tawdry, the freak and the clown and the acrobat. Because a circus is never static, its arrival is always an intrusion; and because a circus performer must perforce be different from what we see around us every day, then it is easy to cast those performers as heroes or villains, as promise or threat (and sometimes both at once).

However, because so many writers of the fantastic have followed the examples of Finney and Bradbury, the various forms and possibilities of the circus have become overly familiar. And, to be honest, Kim Lakin-Smith does nothing new with the form in Cyber Circus; she even sets it in a flat, hardscrabble landscape that echoes the Kansas of Finney’s novel. Of course, we’re not actually in Kansas any more; the setting is a sort of parallel world known as Sore Earth, a name that tells us everything we need to know about the setting. Sore Earth has been transformed into a replica of the Kansas dustbowl by Soul Food, a plant food that ended up rendering the soil infertile. Now the grim communities that survive are entertained by Herb and his Cyber Circus, the whole edifice a living airship.

Why it is called ‘Cyber Circus’ is beyond me, there is nothing cybernetic about it, no hint of a computer anywhere in the book. Rather than the cyberpunk the title might suggest, this is unadulterated steampunk, full of the sort of gizmos that have become de rigueur. Hellequin, our hero, for instance, is a HawkEye, a one-time member of a military elite who had his eye replaced by a brass device which seems to whirr and click with a great show but to little obvious effect. Opposed to our heroes in their super-dirigible, there is D’Angelus with his brass tunnelling machine.

D’Angelus runs a brothel but his star attraction, Desirous Nim, has run away to join the circus; now he wants her back. What follows is a sort of slow motion chase punctuated by bursts of violent action that occur, regular as clockwork, every couple of chapters. This regularity is part of the problem with the novel. Each episode starts with some revelation about a character or a setting that had not even been hinted at before, this leads to a confrontation which ends in a fight in which the heroes of the Cyber Circus always seem outclassed yet mostly emerge unscathed. And then the sequence begins afresh. There are coincidences galore: when Hellequin, our hero, is kidnapped by a former comrade on behalf of one of the Blood Worms of Zan City (a harvester of body parts), it turns out to be exactly the same Blood Worm who had previously done work on both Desirous Nim and Pig Face, one of the circus roustabouts. This sense of plotting by numbers, together with a cast that is more freak than character, is somewhat offset by a rich, occasionally over-ripe, writing style. You can settle back and enjoy the lushness of the prose even if you don’t believe a word of what you are reading.

But the short novel Cyber Circus is accompanied by a novelette, ‘Black Sunday’, that manages to get right everything that the novel gets wrong. The writing is much more controlled, the plotting is consistent, even the minor characters are convincing; and it works principally by not trying to be anywhere near as fantastical as the novel. The setting this time actually is Finney’s dustbowl, though in Oklahoma rather than Kansas, but there is no circus to bring freakishness and colour into this staid and monochrome world. The town of Bromide has been dying for some time, most of the population have left and those who remain have mostly settled into a life of bitchiness, suspicion and lusting after Carrie-Anne Nightingale. Carrie-Anne lives with her aunt, Josephine Splitz, whose garden is the only productive one in the area, partly because of Jos’s ingenious irrigation system and partly because of the skills of their black housekeeper, Julie.

Jos, meanwhile, has devised a burrowing machine which, with the aid of Carrie-Anne’s love interest, Virgil Roberts, she is using to seek water deep under the dry land. This is the science fictional element in the story (and a direct link with Cyber Circus) but it is largely irrelevant to what is going on since this intense story is primarily about the narrowness of a rural community in hard times, fuelled by racial prejudice and sexual jealousy. When things boil up to their devastating conclusion, it feels like a natural development given the character and the situation of these people. It ends with a mystery that may provide an origin story for one of the more minor and more irritating characters in Cyber Circus but it is a stronger story as a stand-alone.

Cyber Circus is over-wrought and underworked; it could have done with a sterner editorial input and greater attention to detail. There are suggestions of a potentially interesting writer at work here but this isn’t the novel to realise that potential. ‘Black Sunday’, on the other hand, is quite clearly the work of a writer worth paying attention to, someone with something to say and in control of her material. We can only hope that ‘Black Sunday’ rather than Cyber Circus is the harbinger of what is to come.