Review: Transubstantiate, by Richard Thomas

>>Published: April 2010

>>Finally got around to it: December 2010

Tran-sub-stan-ti-ate

tr.v. tran-sub-stan-ti-at-ed, tran-sub-stan-ti-at-ing, tran-sub-stan-ti-ates

1.To change (one substance) into another; transmute.

2.Christianity To change the substance of (the Eucharistic bread and wine) into the body and blood of Jesus.

***

Richard Thomas’ seven-voice neo noir thriller borrows heavily from obvious sources (Lost, the Matrix films, Ghost in the Shell, and any number of psychological thriller/horror/sci-fi tropes, but the end result it entirely its own thing. As an examination of seven broken, lost, murderous, Machiavellian, and generally fucked up souls, the mosaic painted at the end is both a rich, detailed thriller that moves with a definite sense of urgency, and a social deconstruction of what it means—and what it takes—to create a utopia.

Using the premise of an experiment in population control spawning a global virus that leaves only a fraction of a percentile still breathing, Thomas uses his seven avatars—the shopkeeper, the nymphomaniac, the exile, the guardian, the vengeance seeker, the mind behind the curtain, and the disgruntled youth—to construct a non-linear narrative that is as much a mystery of what their island utopia/prison represents as it is the whys and wherefores of the seemingly disparate threads that connect the many narrators.

The ghost-in-the-machine/mind-behind-the-curtain concept is nothing new to noir or science fiction, and neither is the last-happy-spot-on-the-ravaged-world setting that may or may not occasionally travel back to the desolate mainland, complete with its semi-mutated, likely drug-addled wanton-rape-and-pillage gangs. Thomas makes these ideas feel fresh, however, by the division of the seven narrators. Through such a tactic, we never get a total sense of omniscience. In essence, we see what we need to see in order to understand why several random individuals might find themselves as mice in a cage for the purposes of an ongoing investigation into social control mechanisms, but not much more than that. The reader is similar to a bird flying over a city, snagging only the bits of story that appear when people walk between buildings, but losing the greater sense of what goes on inside before moving onto the next voice. That’s not to the book’s detriment—if anything, its slightly-obstructed set of perspectives are what keep it from feeling as if it is something seen and experienced before.

Taken as one, the seven voices of the tale pull together a set of strands that transforms what could have been a very predictable Big Brother-esque plot into a more painterly abstraction of the desire to live in a safe haven, and the ramifications of a single perverted mind that seeks to deconstruct the utopia it has infiltrated. An interesting ride, and a very worthwhile experiment in storytelling if one can get past some rather glaring editorial shortcomings.

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