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In Association with Amazon.com
Panoptica
Patrick Hudson
Lulu paperback £8.99
e-book £2.05 / $3.99

review by Steven Hampton

Imagine a future where surveillance culture has deformed into complex, interlocking states of delusional irrationality, a condition that's often just as queasily disturbing in its technological excesses as it is quirkily bemusing in its blatant uselessness. Think of Videodrome meets Judge Judy. Our story begins with a loner's protest against British monarch Hugh Grant IV, and quickly turns into the criminal "media-ocracy" circus of cartoon futurism, after the new king's mysterious assassin is dragged from puritanical obscurity into a wantonly televised system of justice games. Panoptica is an epic farce based upon bonus-prize notions of "MTV-cops" and courtroom pantomimes, and fugitive antics destined to end in public execution - or, at least, the denial of reality-TV rights and click-thru revenues for one shamefully most-wanted man's own celebrity bio-pic of 'Not Guilty Man' misadventures with no-logo, but keenly Swiftian, moral confusions.

The depravity of the nation. The tarnishing of a holy tradition. Blasphemy, vacuity, consumer slavery.

As an 'English' revolutionary, Titus Spring is part a kind of luckless Frank Spencer (from TV series Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em), and part Arthur Dent (hero of Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy). To say that Titus Spring is an eccentric, and something of a rebel, is obvious, but his character is gloomily unhappy, adrift in postmodern customs that he can barely understand, let alone contend with. Proving to be as much a hindrance as a helpmate or guide, co-star Robbie Williams III (yeah, a failed "popstar tribute act"), an impish barrister heavily into garish broadcasting showmanship instead of any legit defence proceedings, becomes Titus Spring's only dependable ally. Is our involuntary hero in trouble, or what? He is trapped in an inverted worldview, all topsy-turvy with Monty Python styled irreverence, and constantly besieged by increasingly surrealistic episodes that blur meta-fiction demarcation lines, and further complicate an already dazzlingly convoluted anarchistic narrative with some eye-blisteringly dyslexic dialogue in varied multicultural accents and nearly impenetrable regional or ethnic dialects.

In addition to the palpable influence of Douglas Adams and the comicbook dystopian realm of Judge Dredd, the back cover blurb cites notables Fred Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth, alongside Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and George Orwell's 1984. To the iconic list, we might add the parodies of Robert Sheckley and the more scathing comedies of John Sladek. Beset by a fraudulent identity crisis that would challenge The Prisoner's Number Six, forthright protagonist Titus Spring, a campaigner for individual decency and privacy, finds himself caught up in a bizarro remix of Peter Weir's Truman Show, and Gary Ross' quasi-nostalgic Pleasantville. Such movie touchstones are part of this book's panoramic genre heritage, and they are other sources of Panoptica's creatively absurdist charm. If Panoptica were to be adapted for cinema, it would require a genre savvy director such as Paul Verhoeven to do it proud. Perhaps it would work better on TV, though, as a 21st century phildickian successor to 1985's cult of Max Headroom.

Anonymous? ... No way. I'm sending out a full press kit and show reel on this one.

Arguably, the most important (if not essential) asset that any new novelist can have is a distinctive 'voice'. Many talented writers produce first novels full of clever twists on familiar ideas and themes, but only a few manage to overcome pretensions, outgrow their influences, and produce insightful work that is clearly distinguished by a literary individualism. Patrick Hudson's bold approach ensures that Panoptica is refreshingly appealing in its briskly paced jumble of satirical plot, and polemical digressions about everything from trickledown environmentalism to catwalk fashionista parades.

There is an overextended surge of campy innuendo with the supporting performer, widowed Mrs Gloria Passworthy - in a kind of 'guest star' appearance, that seems likely to blight one middle chapter (but all's well that ends swell), whilst several glaring typos mar the joke-cluttered text, but many of the author's contract clause quips and exclusive gags about suburban mores, generalised social malaise and interposed specificity, are quite frequently hilarious. And a post-cyberpunk version of 'Catweazle' as a tech consultant is great fun.

Hudson is very good at instantly catchy nicknamed characters: traitorous sell-out Fly-Debate Roberts; deputy bailiff Persistence McKee; shadowy mastermind Belvedere Hendricksen; alleged bomb-maker Steadfast Morton; telly maven Ditmar Cruze, and UNIQUE agent Swooshy Kurtzweil. They are seeded throughout the story like product placemats, each a playful brand to be read as shorthand for an implicitly distinctive presence, sometimes without any need for action or even a formal description.

If the comedy-drama is enacted on a stage without apparent exits, while a chorus line of buffoonery-unlimited talent show-offs are just waiting in the wings to spoil hapless Titus Spring's righteous pleading for equanimity or merely a degree of sanity, Hudson delivers plenty of sincere and fervently melancholic invective against the encroaching madness. This madness is at the core of the book's not-entirely-abstract "spawning of the mediocratic nightmare," in a format-wars scenario which looms closer like spoofy video horrors from the distorting-mirror image of our own patent-pending nu-future, a seemingly terminal era of social entropy with risibly frivolous wastelands of commercialised injustice raining down calamitous despair. Fans of Jeff Noon's Vurt and the 'avant pulp' of Pixel Juice, Steve Aylett's 'Beerlight' stories (see Crime Studio), Rob Grant's Incompetence, Jack Womack's Elvissey, Max Barry's bar-coded Jennifer Government, Tricia Sullivan's Maul, and Robert Rankin's sardonic wit should enjoy this.

Panoptica by Patrick Hudson



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