The People’s Republic of Everything is a collection of short stores and a short novel that exemplifies the power of Nick Mamatas’ combination of sharp, witty observations with prose that is clear and evocative. Most of these stories have a political theme, but not in the blunt sense of the word. This is fiction concerned with showing the impact of rules and ideology on how people desire to shape public life and its orgnization. What makes this concern effective and entertaining is how Mamatas mixes earnestness, satire, and layered storytelling into energetic narratives of people trying to grasp or remake their reality.
Some of these stories are fantastical in a manner akin to Vonnegut or Atwood. In “Arbeitscraft” (one of the best stories in this collection) a driven Frederick Engles tries to reaffirm his own convictions with an unusual approach to empowering the proletariat and realizing The Revolution. There is a steampunk aesthetic to the story, but each element of it is used to augment the story, rather than serve as an unexamined background. Each significant, uncanny interaction (in a very broad sense), is an unfolding surprise that Engels must reconcile with his well-worn, embedded ideology, to a point where he makes some questionable, unsettling choices to create the ultimate Revolution. There is much more to unpack in this story than I can denote here, but it makes a firm point about the effects of ideology on people at all class levels. It loses a bit of power with the last sentence, but it is a story to re-read and savor over and over again.
Other stories bring this down to even more personal levels. The surprisingly sweet “Tom Silex, Spirit Smasher” deals with issues of family history and the sometimes intimate complications of intellectual property by weaving them into a realistic, brief tale of a woman whose gradmother’s past opens up her future. Mamatas combines some hersh realities of our world-as-constructed with personal musings about sense of self: “What kind of person am I? What would my ghost look like under the Shadow Lantern?”(p.59). A discussion over copyright ownership of a pulp creation fuels an affecting narrative of questioning the self. Nostalgic wistfulness, the harsh truths of personal history, and a longing for internal solidity all interact in this questioning, and Mamatas deftly blends them to demonstrate that, in the end, this question can only be answered by the unstable, doubtful self that is its subject,
“The People’s Republic of Everywhere and Everything” is a clever crime story with a little SF and a little more discussion of the tension between idealism and opportunism in political thought. I found it delightful. In “The Armored Train” folklore, ideology, and political theory clash as people struggle to maintain themselves through these systems, which in the end creates a conflict brought on by a need for one person to shield their political beliefs from alteration. “North Shore Friday” contains textual manipulation that intensifies its SFnal ghost story. “The Glottal Stop” is a wry and chilling look at trolling. Under My Roof, which needs much more attention than I can give it, is an ironic romp that will engage and perhaps perplex a reader. Like the bulk of this collection, the story is powered by the characters’ attempts to make their own distinctive sense of the world and bend reality to it.
These stories are thoughtful, smart, and enjoyable. There is little of the didactic in them, and few have any conclusion that ties them up neatly. But the contrast between people’s desires for completeness and certainty and the elusiveness of these desires gives the reader much to ponder. This collection is full of treasures; even the weaker stories have fascinating nuggets in them. There are ideas in these stories that can make you ruminate on your own beliefs and their power, and perhaps examine how your beliefs both reflect and reinforce your own concept of who you are and what kind of power you have to remake the world, and yourself.
John H. Stevens is a bookseller and writer. If all goes to plan, he’ll be joining us every week!