(Orbit, £10.99, 355 pages, trade paperback, published November
2003; £6.99, 419 pages, paperback, June 2004.)
Two stories unfold in parallel in this fast and furious blend of gender
issues and balls-
("ovaries-out"??) action. In a future where Y-plagues have almost wiped
out the male population, Dr Madeleine Baldino is researching the effects
of a self-diagnostic game called Mall on the immune system of her laboratory
specimen, Meniscus. And somewhere in near-contemporary suburban America,
three Korean girls head for the shopping "maul" to shop for cosmetics
and engage the local girl gang in a little territorial gunplay.
It becomes clear fairly early on that this latter storyline is a metaphor
for the former, an entertaining device that allows Sullivan to present
the immune processes of Meniscus' body, essential as they are to the
plot, in terms other than the purely dry and medical. The tale of Sun
Katz and her friends is narrated in a punchy colloquial style and seasoned
with touches of post-modernism and magic realism that lend it a distinct
charm. By itself, the Sun Katz thread could comfortably carry the book;
its impact is not lessened one whit by the presence of the Baldino thread.
The one aspect of Sun's narrative I would take issue with is her periodic
lapses into cod philosophy. Yes, it's a habit teenagers generally have,
but these brief treatises on the nature of life break up the flow of
the story to no obvious purpose. Chief highlight, I would say, is Sun's
encounter with the clothing range whose advertising genuinely reflects
It's in the Baldino thread that the gender issues are brought to the
fore. In a world where sperm is at a premium, the most eligible fathers
are housed in secure "castellations", made initially to prove their
machismo in extreme sports and acts of bravado that carry the additional
risk of exposure to the airborne Y-plagues, and then to parade themselves
on the "Pigwalks". Meniscus is not one of these, but a clone created
for medical research; however, he glimpses the world of the Aspirant
Pigs when Baldino's superiors sneak one into his habitat.
Sullivan treats the gender-related aspects of Maul with, in
my opinion, a very even hand. The near annihilation of the male sex
has resolved some of the world's problems but raised others, and admit
it or no, women still need men -- even if it is just for breeding-stock.
The relations between the female medical research staff and their male
test subjects are explored frankly and in depth. The Aspirant Pigs are
amusingly rendered as celebrity sports jocks, while Meniscus' initially
tragic character blossoms out of all recognition during the course of
the novel. Female characterisation is strong throughout, particularly
in the tension between no-nonsense Dr Baldino and Naomi, her slipshod
The story overall is engaging and slips by all too quickly, racing
toward an ending that, to my mind, owes much to the cheesier sci-fi
films of the Seventies and Eighties. Perhaps it's just me, but in the
last couple of chapters there I could suddenly imagine David Carradine
playing Meniscus. Anyway. The dust settles on a denouement that isn't
exactly fair, but certainly seems right, if that's at all clear.
Maul is a thoroughly enjoyable, well-written novel that stares
hard down the barrel of sexual politics and happily sticks its finger
in the muzzle. Highly recommended, and another firm handhold on Sullivan's
upward climb as an author.
Review by John Toon.
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