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Maul
Tricia Sullivan
Orbit paperback £10.99

review by Steven Hampton

When teenage Sun Katz joins her best friends - game-playing Suk Hee and trigger-happy Keri - for a shopping spree at the local mall, the three girlz are confronted by wannabe media hawk 10Esha and cool gang-leader KrayZglu's bugaboos, and a gunfight breaks out right there in the cosmetics department. Meanwhile, in a matriarchal timeline where targeted Y-plagues have decimated the masculine population, Dr Maddie Baldino begins to discover that Meniscus, a supposedly autistic human guinea pig who has been purposely infected with a tailored virus for the purposes of genetic study, is far more important than she had imagined.
   Maul (a most expressive euphemism for the readily symbolic mall) depicts a female-controlled society where procreation is centred if not dependent on the availability of "aspirant swine" models at a yearly Pigwalk event (a busy circus for the elite which perfects the book's themes of shopping and sex). In contrast and parallel to the spitfire girl-gangs that inhabit the hermetic, violent, and apparently virtual world of Mall (is this really just a VR game played by Meniscus, or does it reveal the future-history that led to a post-feminist era?), Maddie and her colleagues vie for the attention and seed of celebrity slaves like superstar faux-Apollo, Arnie Henshaw, though they also lust after roughneck charmers like the imprisoned counter-revolutionary Snake Carrera (wittily nicknamed Starry Eyes).
   With the possible exception of one greatly troubled and tortured soul, much fun is had by all and sundry despite all the embarrassing public and private failures of both male and female characters. Clever ideas such as the ubiquitous I-MAGE scanners and the scientists' multi-sensory MUSE aid, which portrays "statistics à la Monet" for swotting raw data into useful information, help to give Sullivan's somewhat darkly imagined future a hi-tech sheen that often conflicts with the mess of peculiarly emotive traits and hormonal behaviours. And, thankfully, all the gadgetry is strictly confined to the background, so there's little danger of getting lost in the hard-SF nuts and bolts of this thoroughly human narrative. As winningly satirical as it is inspiring, Sullivan's intelligent and erudite novel doesn't miss a trick with literary references and sexually resonant imagery - from pet mice and petted men, to a lone she wolf on the prowl in the lustreless cityscape, and there are more brand namechecks and designer labels than you would find in many fashionable cyberpunk novels - yet I hasten to add Sullivan deploys these with largely humorous intent, not as intrusive product placement adverts.
   Although it will assuredly take all kinds to make a real future world, feminists might take umbrage at Sullivan's suggestion that it may be necessary to keep male chauvinist pigs around for the sake of biodiversity!
Maul by Tricia Sullivan

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