Plastic Jesus by Wayne Simmons
It is the near future, following a devastating Holy War. Once part of the US colonies, Maalside, the New Republic, now stands alone in the Pacific, separated from the heartland by 200 miles of salty ocean. Lark City is its capital, watched over by a 50 foot, pouting, stiletto-heeled and garter-belted ‘Miss Liberty’, a crude parody of the famous landmark across the water.
In this brutal neon jungle, Code Guy Johnny Lyon writes a Jesus social networking AI, to rebrand religion following the war. But something goes wrong; a virtual hell breaks on the streets of Lark – a violent, surreal and uncontrollable social breakdown.
Caught in this terrifying web of danger are Sarah Lee, Johnny’s co-worker, drug lord Paul McBride who is determined to exploit the chaos to wipe out his enemies, and McBride’s junkie daughter, a prostitute called Kitty.
Now, only Johnny can save Sarah, Kitty and the city.
All the characters in Plastic Jesus are lost or broken in one way or another. They’re all looking for something that’s missing from their lives. For Johnny Lyon, the rawness of a recent bereavement still weighs heavy. He’s conflicted, looking for some sort of closure, but in the same breath unable to give up the past. He throws himself into his work and the result is an artificial intelligence designed to help save souls.
While Lyon unwittingly unleashes his own take of “Buddy Christ” onto the world, we also get to meet Paul McBride. He’s the local crime boss, and a suitably nasty piece of work he is too. McBride’s preferred method of coercion is a kind word and a very, very sharp knife. He has a sinister henchman known only as The Bar Man, and their criminal enterprises manage to inadvertently become caught up with Johnny’s narrative.
Soon after I started reading Plastic Jesus, I realised that it reminded me of something. I wracked my brain, I’ll admit it took me a while, and eventually it all came flooding back. Many moons ago, in the late nineteen eighties, Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neill created a comic book back called Marshal Law. The eponymous hero patrolled the streets of a grimy metropolis called San Futuro. Everything in this neon-coated candy-land was delightfully sleazy. Crime was rampant and justice was delivered with a heavy hand. Lark City is cut from similarly pre-apocalyptic cloth. Past its best, barely managing to exist, the city and its populace are just about surviving. This was my favourite component of the novel. Lark City is so well observed. There are loads of tiny little details that make the locations seem to come alive. Simmons has created an entire city, and by extension a world, that has been fundamentally changed after the outcome of a violent conflict. Lark City is the perfect backdrop for this particular story.
It’s an intriguing idea, attempting to re-boot religion. Hi-tech business has taken a concept that has failed so many in this world and is trying to make it appear palatable again. If I have any criticism I think that it probably lies here. The climax of the novel could have been drawn out a bit more. The Jesus AI has effectively gone all Skynet and this could/should have been explored in a bit more depth. I think perhaps I was hoping for something a bit more visceral and apocalyptic. I liked what was there I just wanted to see more wrath of an electric God type stuff! A digital Armageddon needs a much bigger and bolder canvas.
I rattled through this novel pretty damn quickly. Simmons writes in a short, punchy style that I clicked with immediately, it gives proceedings a nicely noir-ish feel. I was surprised just how quickly I got caught up in the lives of this shabby metropolis. Plastic Jesus reads like it is just a single episode in the larger story of Lark City. It felt as though there were still more stories waiting to be told. I do hope this is a place that the author chooses to revisit again in the future. I’d certainly be more than happy to read more. This story has a touch of sci-fi, a hint of B-movie crime and just a smidge of theological insight. It’s an interesting mix of ideas that overall I enjoyed.
Plastic Jesus is published by Salt Publishing and is available now.