Review by JR Foley
Lance Olsen writes of the near future with the gusto, the comprehensive and comic social knowledge and imaginative passion of a Dickens. I am not the first to note this, but its aptness is more than comparative. The setting of Freaknest is certainly London and its underworld. It even begins with an express echo of the master:
(That Klub Med "(as in Klub Medellin, as in the Medellin Cartel, an economic entity that diversified after most previously illicit drugs were legalized over the course of the first two decades of the new centry)," among other things, builds concentration camp theme parks like BelsenLand.)Mr. Jarndyce Mizzle-Sluggbury, the one-hundred-and-twenty-three-year-old Klub Med executive who'd wealthied himself fat and greasy as a bacon-wrapped chunk of filet mignon through his company's seminal investigations into cryonics (in 2021 he was instrumental in tugging back one Anna Tesler-Huntington from the brink of 2001 smack into a bout of spontaneous psychosis), debarked from the beetlish black cab outside his Knightsbridge flat at 3 Hans Crescent across the street from Harrods' counterfeit-gothic facade.
I mentioned in a review of Olsen's earlier Time Famine that the 21st Century is his Yoknapatawpha County. Dickens and Faulkner in the same breath set a high standard. But Olsen sets his challenges very high indeed.
Freaknest is the third novel in what is not a series in the familiar sense of core characters in an ever-evolving network of closely-related plots. Very much in a Faulknerian sense, however, it is a new penetration of a defined territory, the England and America of the late first quarter of the 21st Century. (Later volumes might reach other parts of the globe.) While Time Famine, the second volume, stayed in the American West (past and future, with a sortie to the Moon), Freaknest returns to the electronic post-monarchy neo-Punk England of the first novel, Tonguing the Zeitgeist. Put much too simply, that first novel focused on the political cooptation of rock music. Except incidentally, Freaknest has nothing further to do with that.
It has to do with the political cooptation of science, the biomedical in particular. I will say barely more about the plot than that it concerns a group of feral children found in isolation rooms in the house of Dr. Jarndyce Mizzle-Sluggbury, who has been experimenting on them in the attempt to "rewire" their nervous systems, and with the use of "nanobots" (submicroscopic robots) transferring to the children the memories of the cryogenically preserved whose bank accounts have zeroed out, and with them their frozen remains. The children, themselves transferred for study to the Aiwa-Benz Neural Orientation & Maturation Assessment Lab (ABNORMAL), are treated as guinea pigs by all but one sympathetic aide, who helps them escape into a picaresque chase through the outlaw East End, until everyone comes to no good end.
My own taste is appreciative yet suspect of thrillers, especially when the chase is on, because so much exploration of milieu (which the novel is really about) gets short shrift in the lickety-split keep-it-moving; the death traps are obviously not going to be fatal when there are still 100 - 50 - 20 pages left to turn; the last-minute rescues vary the old deus ex machina more or less mechanically; and imaginative revelation, not to mention character development, get swamped by the velocity of plot speed. I found the second half of Freaknest succumbing to this suction into the black hole of story annihilation. To this extent the plot-action of the last hundred pages disappoints, leaving the novel a secondary prop to the edifice of which the earlier Time Famine is clearly the major structure. My second comment about the plot, however, is: it doesn't matter.
Plots are not what make Lance Olsen novels fascinating (although they never sit still, and they never bore). You don't read Olsen for plot; you read him for the sheer pleasure of reading him. Pick any sentence at random. This one is from p. 144. Olsen writes shorter as well as longer sentences, depending. This one is in the chase I referred to, here through the literal London underground, the tube. Tris, Rykki, Zivv, and Oran are the re-wired feral kids at the heart of the novel. The "cultists" are Cat Cultists; not friendly dudes at all.
Here's another (p. 75).Tris dropped into a body ball which a cultist in the lead tumbled over into a clique of generally-hacked-
A little more of this world comes through in this one (p. 79). It's a world run without disguise by transnational conglomerates; the "governcorps" being only quasi-independent subsidiaries specializing, usually badly, in such things as housing or crowd control.A stray intrepid pedestrian decked out in respirator, goggles, rubber gloves, rubber mackintosh over Klub Med-tartan kilt, and LaCrosse biohazard boots recommended by the World Health Organization shot out of a newsagent's, jogged down the pavement, and darted into a Chinese bank past the deserted shrine where a weak feather of smoke rose from a smoldering pile of incense and paper money before a plaster likeness of the Great Helmsman himself.
The Imperial Mallmaze, its name a bit of a laff at the exiled royal family, started as a group of shops on a side street in Noneatin in the late nineties but, under the auspices of the Virgin-Disney people (under the auspices of the Klub Med people, under the auspices of the Diacomm people), cleaved, replicated, and grew like some sort of dream-time steel-and-glass transmutation, both above ground and below, spreading westward into Birmingham, chewing away at the city through the decades till it more or less replaced the city, supplanting some of the less economically solvent natives therein, while also creating a home for lots more, part office complex and part bazaar, part governcorp housing project and part conglomeration of innumerable faddish boutiques ... a stunted Sherwood Forest bisected by a stream rushing with holographic water (floating chessboards, pointillist fruit, vintage psychedelic stripes and paisleys) ... full-scale BosniaLand theme park highlighted with make-believe mortar attacks and ethnic-cleansing festivals ... manmade lake with Yellow Submarine rides ... tennis courts ... football fields ... even this forgery of a little corner of the Swiss Alps complete with snow and bunny slopes for the wannabe skiers in the family ... everything tumbling together into a clean, Brinks-Force-
The details of Olsen's world are as inexhaustible as his linguistic resources. His tongue keeps inventing them, without let-up, without let-down: exuberant, shrewd, hilarious, illuminating. Dystopian satire is not my cup of choice; but never has it been such fun.
Which is quite an achievement. Neither Orwell nor Huxley has projected so hopeless a world – yet such a lively wonder ... until it eats you, inside out.
More of Lance Olsen can be found at Cafe Zeitgeist.