A damaged cop (ho hum). Clones bred for replacement body parts (wait a minute). Flying malls that function as cities (what?). These are the main elements of Michael Marshall Smith’s dystopian noir thriller Spares.
Rapt-addicted ex-cop, Jack Randall, has dropped off the grid following a great personal tragedy. He takes a job as caretaker of one of the farms that houses clones (the “spares” referred to in the title) who are bred by the rich as insurance against failing bodies. Following a Jack Daniel’s/Rapt-fueled delirium, which results in a crisis of conscience, Randall decides to liberate some of the spares (at least those who have the sufficient number of limbs and vital organs to allow survival away from the farm). Now on the run from SafetyNet (the company that creates and manages the clones), Jack Randall, with seven teenaged spares in tow, flees to New Richmond, a flying MegaMall that is permanently earthbound due to a software glitch. And this is where the trouble really starts.
Upon arrival in New Richmond, all but one of the spares are abducted by a group of thugs (led by a bald man with blue lights embedded in his head). As Randall tries to find the missing teens, he comes face to face with the twin demons that shattered his life–the brutal unsolved murder of his wife and child, and his mind-searing tour of military duty in The Gap. After a convoluted journey, which includes a return visit to the The Gap (a Matrix-like realm born of discarded snippets of dead code extricated from an overcrowded internet), murder is avenged, an anti-hero is redeemed, and the software glitch that has grounded New Richmond for two decades is fixed, allowing the city to once again take to the skies.
If this sounds like a wild story, it is, but the events unfold in a (mostly) linear fashion, making it (mostly) easy to follow. There are a few digressions by the first-person narrator that explain how this near-future dystopian society has come about, but they are interesting, unobtrusive, and the author slips us in and out without disrupting the forward momentum of the story.
As a reader, I was drawn to the story by the premise of clones as body part reservoirs. This, however, turned out to be a minor element of the plot. What kept me reading was the voice of the protagonist: a beaten-down-by-tragedy, hardboiled-without-the-clichés, carrying-emotional-baggage-but-not-wallowing-in-self-pity kind of voice (he is a former detective, after all). Although this may not sound appealing, the depth of the narrator’s insight, and the deadpan delivery of his take on the distorted society he inhabits, its bizarre evolution, and the freaks that populate it are well drawn and artfully executed. And yes, he is a sympathetic character.
As a writer, I was most in awe of Smith’s story world. Although some of the ideas were quite abstract (like The Gap), I was able to form a basic understanding, and the imagery created by the author was masterful. If you are an aspiring writer facing the daunting task of building a fantastical story world, I highly recommend studying Smith’s rendering of New Richmond and its environs.
If you’ve read Spares, or you read it in the near future, please let me know what you think.