DarkEcho Horror
deccoclock by Rick Berry
Book Review

by Michael Marshall Smith
ISBN 0-553-10604-X
(Now available in paperback: Bantam/pp. 400/$6.50/ISBN: 0553579010)

[Great modern horror is not always labeled as "horror". You'll probably find this one shelved under SF. Of course, it is also a dark mystery/thriller, and horrific...]

Anyone reviewing Michael Marshall Smith's cross-genre novel Spares is apt to fall back on a variety of comparisons. And they are all accurate -- Spares does evoke hard-boiled detective writers like Jim Thompson and Raymond Chandler; Philip K. Dick and his cyberpunk descendants; the filmic atmospheres of A Clockwork Orange, Chinatown, and Blade Runner; even the humor of Douglas Adams. But to do so does a disservice to Smith, who deserves credit for his own unique imagination, skill, and this wonderfully diverse novel.

Spares is told in a poignant first-person by Jack Randall, an ex-cop, ex-soldier, ex-husband, ex-father, ex-member of the human race, and ex-addict -- except there is no such thing as an ex-addict. At the outset of the novel he's come back to his former home -- New Richmond, Virginia: a 200-story flying megamall that has been "grounded" for 83 years due to technological failure compounded by bureaucratic ineptitude. Jack's brought seven "spares" with him that he rescued from a "farm" that, shattered and drug-addled, he found himself in charge of. Spares are clones who exist only to provide spare parts -- skin, eyes, organs, limbs, faces -- for their legally "human" counterparts. Jack has treated the spares as humans -- teaching them to communicate, to actualize their emotions, and allowing them to think for themselves -- and is attempting to save them from the system that exploits their bodies and ignores their minds, feelings, and souls. In New Richmond Jack becomes embroiled in a deadly mystery involving denizens of both the underworld and overworld, his ex-partner, a former enemy, and The Gap -- the surrealistic ex-war zone born from a virtual world that had "grown too heavy and sloughed off the wires and coalesced into something solid."

Smith's future noir world of urban decay is one in which computers create their own programming and are sometimes more human than the humans. protagonist,The society is a plausibly corrupt extension of our current era with The Gap an obvious Vietnam allegory. And, of course, it is all the more chilling because we can so easily believe it. Smith falters in his culture only in one respect: his emphasis on class stratification is devoid of any racial overtones whatsoever -- as is the case in most SF. But, like the best SF -- and hard-boiled detective fiction -- Smith provides compelling philosophical and sociological underpinnings along with his energetic action.

For all the other comparisons, Spares reminds me most of John Shirley's early cyperpunk novel City Come A Walkin', and Jack Randall is reminiscent of the flawed heroes in Shirley's work. Like Shirley, Smith writes of dark things in dark worlds where the horror -- disturbingly familiar no matter what the trappings -- is often found within our own souls.

Spares could easily become a classic cherished by readers, argued over, dissected and discussed for years. And because it has been optioned by Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks SKG it has a chance of becoming more than a cult classic. Whatever Spares becomes -- it is required reading now. -- Paula Guran

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Copyright © 2002 Paula Guran. All Rights Reserved.