Britain's Martin Millar has carved out a niche with a slew of fanciful urban fantasy books , like the recent Lonely Werewolf Girl. And now his maniacal early work, Lux The Poet, is out in the U.S. at last. Spoilers ahead.
I didn't get to read Lonely Werewolf Girl properly, but I looked through it when it came out last year, and it seemed like it would be a fun, twisty fantasy adventure, complete with warring werewolf clans, preening pop stars and narcissistic magical divas. It looks like a slightly more substantial read than Lux, which is a super quick read, full of rough caricatures running around in an endless maze of silliness. (Obviously, Millar has had another two decades to hone his craft since writing Lux.)
Lux is actually the third in a seemingly endless supply of cheeky novels with science-fiction elements from Britain that I've read lately (the other two being Toby Litt's Journey Into Space and Mark Wernham's Martin Martin's On The Other Side). They're all vaguely literary with a huge dose of camp, and they use their speculative tropes as a kind of backdrop for their silly rambles. Where conventional SF novels try to impress you with the greatness of their conceits, these novels flaunt their naffness. And yet, they're thought experiments, as challenging as any po-faced science fiction classic could hope to be.
Lux The Poet is especially silly and naff, and yet it does put a lot of ideas in your head.
In fact, Lux The Poet is a lot like its main character: campy, insular, lovely, clever, ribald, and ultimately a bit hard to like. Lux is an astonishingly beautiful and self-centered young man who stumbles through great events without ever understanding what's going on around him. When he's ruining his roommates' sex life by using their KY jelly to style his hair, seducing random strangers, or snorting massive quantities of cocaine to keep it out of the hands of the police, Lux approaches comic-hero greatness. He's almost up there with Tom Jones. But his idiocy and self-centeredness may actually start getting on your nerves after a bit. Oh, and it looks like he starred in a quasi-sequel, the graphic novel Lux And Alby Sign On And Save The Universe.
In Lux The Poet, the working-class London suburb of Brixton is being torn apart by riots. And meanwhile, an evil corporation called Happy Science PLC is developing a sinister new genetic programme (it's a British novel) in which famous scientists are going to be merged with beautiful young people, in some kind of eugenics scheme. There's a secret genetic formula, which is kept a bit vague but is one of the novel's main MacGuffins because Pearl, the woman Lux is in love with, steals it.
And then there are a dozen other subplots, of varying fun levels. There's an angel who's been banished from a vaguely Buddhist-sounding Heaven until she can perform a million good deeds, and it turns out she's met Lux in many of his past lives. (And an evil assassin angel trying to keep her from going back to Heaven.) The main accountant at Happy Science, Sebastian, is running an improbable scam where he tries to convince head-hunters that he's greatly in demand, in order to turn that illusion into a reality and jump-start his floundering career. There's a punk-rock band called the Jane Austen Mercenaries, whose demo tapes Lux has stolen because he doesn't like their music. And so on and so on.
At its absolute best, Lux The Poet is deranged social satire that skewers corporate evil and liberal hypocrisy alike. For example, there's a great sequence where a computer geek, Mike, gets mugged by black people during the riots, and this causes him to have unpleasant thoughts, which in turn makes him feel intensely guilty. And that, in turn, makes him behave ridiculously nicely towards his black partner, Marcus, who's trying to create a computer game:
Mike is still trying to be extra pleasant to Marcus.
"Have some brandy. A cup of tea? That's a good game you're making, I could never make one that good, yep, you certainly are a genius when it comes to making computer games, I wish I had your skill, are you sure you wouldn't like some brandy?"
Marcus stands up.
"Mike. I am sick of you being nice to me. At a rough guess I would say you had some bad experiences at the hands of some blacks."
"Yes," screams Mike. "But it doesn't make me think any the worse of you! How did you know?"
"Because any time something like this happens you spend hours feeling guilty in case you are thinking some politically bad thoughts and try and make up for it by being extra nice to me. What happened."
Mike hangs his head.
"I was singled out from a crowd and mugged."
"Wow," says Marcus. "What a surprise. And now, having a sneaking, tiny, minute feeling at the back of your head that just maybe the racists are right because you have been mugged, you are unable to cope."
The mixture of extra-simple writing and razor-sharp satire works alarming well in that passage, and several others like it. At its best, it reminds me of some of Terry Bisson's weird fables about the curious kid Billy.
The thing that makes you glad you read Lux The Poet in the end — and it's a very quick read, thanks to short, snippy segments — is that all of the stuff about reincarnation and past lives and social injustice and weird corporate intrigues does seem to come together in the end. You start to realize that all of these characters are acting out patterns from their past lives, but that Lux has been right all along, and poetry and art can actually make a genuine difference instead of the illusory difference that most of our actions lead to. And that's not a bad message at all.
I'd still probably buy Lonely Werewolf Girl, if I was only buying one Millar book. But this one is a fun, zippy read as well.