BOOK REVIEW: Steeple

Ken is the hero of Jon Wallace’s future dystopia. He used to be special, but now? Not so much. This novel is, of course, his journey of redemption. Steeple by Jon Wallace is the ‘ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances’ narrative trope. But the twist is that Ken – Kenstibec – used to be a Ficial. An artificial human. Not so ordinary. And the designer of the titular tower.

Kenstibec is a Ficial – a genetically engineered artificial life form. Tough, highly skilled and difficult to kill, Kenstibec is used to the luxuries that he possesses. That is, until he loses the nanotech that constantly repaired him. More mortal than ever, Kenstibec is no better than the few remaining humans clinging to life in the blighted, devastated world. Now called ‘The Reals’, these humans are locked in a long-standing conflict with their own creations.

There is a rumour that the dilapidated Hope Tower contains a treasure. Clive, the King of Kent, decides he wants it. Ken, and his associate Fatty, along with another Real, Bridget, are tasked with retrieving it. Not everyone knows that Ken used to be a Ficial. The main thrust of Wallace’s second novel is the journey to the tower and through it, as Ken tries and fails to abandon the mission – he has no interest in Clive’s kingdom. He wants to be left alone to wallow in his past. Meanwhile, a soldier model Ficial is out to bring Ken down. The chapters are short and punchy, and interspersed with even shorter flashbacks. In these, we learn about the world before the war between Reals and Ficials, when Kenstibec is designing the tower, while political opposition to the concept grows.

Imagine, if you will, a cyberpunk Die Hard set in Brixton, where everyone has traditional English names and there appears to be no ethnic minorities left. Or imagine Dredd except with machines akin to the T-800 and T-1000 going hammer and tongs at each other. Steeple reads like an event movie. It has a single focus with a little back story in order to give it some depth. It is set in a very English dystopia, with tribes formed of shopping mall cleaners and religious nuts.

I initially took against Steeple. I didn’t like the style of writing. It seems to be very by-the-numbers with perfunctory descriptors and unimaginative characters. The dialogue is an attempt to reflect how people really do talk to each other but reads flat and unimaginative because of it. Parts of the writing bothered me throughout. Why keep calling the chasing Ficial a soldier model, and yet Phil is referred to by his nickname? Does Wallace expect his readership to forget what is pursuing Ken? Does he not trust them? It also highlights the problem all fiction of this type has; the type that features computers talking to each other. When Ken jacks in to the fuse or talks to Control, they communicate in English sentences – a conversation. In any reality of course, machines would communicate in high-speed machine language. Despite myself, however, I found the plot engaging – like a decent action flick – and while there was nothing particularly earth-shattering about the narrative, it rattles along at a fair pace and is divertingly entertaining. There are plenty of nods to satire and traditional science fiction concepts. The Sweeps are perhaps the future of modern drone technology. The character names – Fatty, Clive, Ken, etc seem to suggest the dystopian nature of the future harps back to 1970s England. Maybe something happened to regress the nation?

What I kept expecting, and was therefore disappointed, was more satirical examination of religion. It is called Steeple after all. Fine, there is the cult at the base of the tower, the cleaner leaders are called Sisters, and there’s a prophet in the climax but there’s nothing biting in the narrative. Nothing as interesting as I’d hoped. The fact that much of the action takes place is future shopping malls and little is said about the religion of consumerism is also a let-down. Steeple is a short and entertaining novel featuring future robots hitting each other. The finale is a fairly standard human searching for ‘immortality’ trope. I would have liked Wallace to have added a hundred pages with some hard-hitting satire. For me, this would have elevated Steeple from a fun read, to decent proper science fiction.

AUTHOR: Jon Wallace
PUBLISHER: Gillancz

Rating: 2.5/5

Reviewer: Ian J Simpson

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