Shade, the runaway daughter of a long-gone father and an absentee mother – Mom’s a concert pianist, one of the best on Earth – who stowed away on a spaceship in light-years-distant California two years ago and now survives among the other Deadtowners living out of garbage bins on the multi-cultural (hah!) planet of Z’taruh. Why “hah!”? There are various different intelligent species – the Q’rin, the Lirri, and the Aesopians, among others – but not much culture, unless you count combat sports like fighting to the death no-holds-barred, and rat-fights, like cock-fights or dog-fights, but between giant marsh-rats and again always to the death. Oh, and not much sign of intelligence, either.
The only ones she likes are the Aesopians.
Early in the book, she is with a mixed group of assorted humans and sub-humans when somebody calls the Aesopians “ugly bastards” and says they were “made out of household pets”.
‘The Aesopians made themselves,’ I said. God knows why I bothered.
He glared at me. ‘Shut up, bitch.’
‘No one knows what they originally looked like,’ I lectured. ‘They worshipped animals for thousands of years. When their technology was advanced enough, they started playing with their genes, trying to imitate the characteristics of their gods.’
‘Who the fuck cares?’
‘They were more successful than they could have dreamed. Soon the different animal-types could not interbreed. Powerful families began to gain control, and war broke out between the groups. Lion, bear, elephant and wolf stuck together against horse, eagle and cobra. The wars lasted hundreds of years and ravaged the planet. The survivors were thrown into a dark age.’
‘Jezus, somebody shut her up!’
But in Deadtown the mix is rather different. Babies, Scarbabies, Skids, Ragnir vets, G-workers, tinkers, dogs. One big, ugly family, all incestuous and diseased. But all better than the thing I was sitting next to.
The thing she was sitting next to was a Lirri.
Knossos, an Aesopian elephant man, and the only person on the planet – indeed in the entire universe – that she has any time for, tells her:
‘Listen. Whether someone is your friend or your enemy does not depend on the shape of his body or the place he was born.’
‘All right,’ I said. ‘I know.’
And I did. Wasn’t I standing there with the elephant man, respecting him more than I did myself and wishing I could follow him back into hiding?
The book is studded with one-liners you just want to quote, like:
Lately I got the feeling that the people I thought I knew never really existed.
‘How old did you think I was?’ she asked.
She hugged me like it was some big compliment. It wasn’t. Arrested development isn’t anything to be proud of.
Making music and painting pictures are two of the three things humans do best. Guess what the third is. No, I’m not telling you.
and, talking about war, Knossos tells her: ‘Where there is no conflict, there is no life.’
And what about this? She was looking for Snag, a Q’rin, so she went to the morning rat-fights … Sure enough, he was there by late morning, all bright-eyed about watching his favourite kind of meal hop around and bleed. Remind you of Spain?