There are two kinds of sci-fi literature; the kind with a moral message for the reader to adopt, and the good old fashioned Mad Max-esque battle romp. The second book by Yorkshire’s own Carlie Martece is a perfect combination of both. ‘The Vipdile Key’ is a triumphant blend of cyberpunk futurism, gothic decadence, and splatter gore. The post-apocalyptic, clandestine world where the events of the novel take place is a terrifying vision of what our future could be; the parallels to our own current reality are what make it all the more frightening.
The underground city of Deragon Hex is vast, complicated, and most importantly, toxic. It is poisoning the moral views of its citizens and lulling them into a numb state of surrender. The control of mass media, reality TV, and aesthetic materialism has grown to resemble totalitarian rule; money is God, and capital punishment becomes a form of cheap TV entertainment, like a sick, sadistic X Factor.
Social media means that our reputations are online for everyone to see. In Deragon Hex, reputation and audience is everything and dictates your quality of life. People are created and destroyed on live TV, and the main characters are caught in this desperate battle of egos. They must tear down these facades of social power in order to face the gritty truth.
There are some fantastic ethic points raised in this novel to muse on, not least the death penalty, public mutilation, cosmetic and product testing, and robots. We are led to think about what would happen if we were to purge our inner most primal urges, and if society could survive if we were to truly live freely.
This contrast of primary human instincts is embodied in protagonist and unusual hero Ash. The issues of gender identity and characteristics are addressed through Ash. I am not kidding when I say that this is the first book that I have ever read which features a self-asserting gender neutral protagonist. As a trans person, I find this to be both refreshing and empowering. Ash is strong willed, inherently good, and genuine. Interestingly, they are one of the few characters in the novel who truly know themselves. They are confident in their identity, but it is still a sensitive subject; they are verbally abused in prison by bigoted inmates and their identity is attacked by society at large. Femininity is somewhat rejected by them, perhaps as an angry rebuke of their past self and the life that they were forced to endure. Then there is the issue of their violent anger sprees. It seems that gender variant people in literature still do not have full control of the self, as Ash says before killing slaughtering a penthouse full of people, “When you can’t buy off the wolves or evade the vultures, you bottle it, you choke it back, you exercise harder or punch a fucking wall. You’re not supposed to actually kill people.”
In contrast to these hard-hitting, sensitive issues, many surreal, even cartoonish situations are scattered throughout the novel, puncturing turmoil with comic relief. I was very much reminded of the 2008 gothic musical film ‘Repo! The Genetic Opera’ and the camp garishness of ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’. Along with delicious visual description, there is also a fair amount of violent revenge and sex for the pulp fans out there. Mortise took me to the edge of my seat and left me teetering there for the entirety of the novel, the intricacies of Deragon Hex whirring beneath me.
For fans of Stephen King, Ian Banks, China Meville, and intricate worlds of horror and moral ambiguity, this is must read.