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Volume 27, Number 1, Fall 2008

Liberation: Being the Adventures of the Slick Six After the Collapse of the United States of America

By Brian Francis Slattery

Tor, 2008
Reviewed by Anders Monsen

Words and plots spin with a dizzying pace from the mind of Brian Francis Slatterly. Like the bright lights and sounds at carnivals that draw in rapt crowds, the literary dazzle on the pages creates the same effect. Slattery’s debut book, 2007’s Spaceman Blues, gave New York City prominent play, making the location as much a character in the plot as the human characters. The evocative title of his second book, Liberation, ranges over the world, and especially America, painting a vast Whitmanesque canvas that shows the fragile nature of society amid mankind’s strong will to survive.

The long subtitle of Liberation gives away the plot of the book, but only in the barest of outlines. The novel opens on a modern day slave ship. From the origin as a prison ship used to deal with overcrowding in American jails, the crew converted its human charges into cargo upon hearing the news of America’s collapse. Facing a brutal future, the prisoners strike back against their former guards and current masters. With the ship in their hands, they wander the seas until, amid the news of the total collapse of their homeland, they point the ship towards New York City.

One of the prisoners aboard the returning ship is Marco Oliveira, an enigmatic killer with lightning reflexes, and the former muscle for the free-wheeling crime group known as the Slick Six. The disparate collection of individuals came together briefly for a series of inventive thefts. One common victim of their action was a master criminal known as the Aardvark, who grew tired of being fleeced by the Slick Six. The Aardvark waged a legal campaign that eventually sent Marco to prison and sundered the Six. When Marco returns from his years in exile amid the ruins of America he finds the Aardvark now rules New York City. Like an orphaned boy who needs his surrogate family, Marco sets out to reunite the Slick Six.

We are witnessing a growth-industry in post-apocalyptic fiction and film. Cormac McCarthy's eerie novel, The Road, soon will appear on the big screen, and a long list of movies in the same vein are set to follow. Slattery’s post-apocalyptic America is less desolate than McCarthy’s, but only marginally. Slavery has once more surfaced, with people selling themselves out of desperation. The New Sioux, a Native America army, has resurfaced in the Mid-West, ranging up and down the country in a migratory pattern and an attitude of near arrogance towards the residents in their path. A flesh-eating circus of madmen ranges through the same area, literally absorbing people into its midst like a killer blob with limbs and will.

As I read this book in the waning days of September and into early October I wondered what crystal ball Slattery had used. At this time the subprime mess went nova—caused not by laissez-faire but by the machinations of an inflationary government and the drunk industry it spawned—and sucked down the American economy into its expanding event horizon.

Marco’s first act in reuniting the Slick Six means breaking out the leader of the group from the Aardvark’s prison. Zeke Hezekiah brought the Six together slowly, picking people for the unique skills: Johanna for her legal acumen, Hideo and Carolyn for their financial skills, and Dayneesha to handle the computers. And Marco, a warrior faster than a whisper, who glides past bullets with ease, handled the battles and the weaponed opposition. Extracting Zeke from prison seems child’s play for Marco, and soon they are southward bound to search for the others.

The Aardvark does not forgive transgressions easily, and sends an assassin after them, a man who can see into the past, who can become invisible, and now hunts Marco with Terminator-like persistence. Like superheroes who transcend mere mortals, characters like Marco and this assassin enhance the vast and fantastic world described in Liberation. Slattery enjoys language, revels in it, but not at the expense of characters, plot, and action. The novel is a near-perfect blend of all these components. It seethes with life and color, like an open air market at mid-season.

Everything comes back to Marco. In the aftermath of America’s economic, political, and moral collapse, it is Marco and not Zeke who assumes a leadership role. Still, when Johanna asks him why he wants to re-unite the Slick Six, he has no answer. As his lawyer and briefly his lover, she bears a strong guilt for letting him take the fall for the other five, for watching him sail away in chains. When Johanna refuses to follow Zeke and Marco, the two hit the road once more to look for Dayneesha. She is holed up in Fort Worth, Texas, a battleground like the rest of the nation, and she gives them bad news. Hideo and Carolyn are slaves, part of the Aardvark's vast empire of human labor.

After the collapse, Hideo and Carolyn survived briefly on their own, before starvation and desperation forced them to sell themselves to one of the many camps along the California coastline. Now they exist at the mercy of a sadistic camp owner in Watsonville. Marco’s purpose remains fixed. When Dayneesha’s commitment wavers, Zeke and Marco head West on their own, although hours later Dayneesha must revisit her decision when the Aardvark’s assassin takes down the last remaining member of her family in his quest to find Marco.

When Marco frees Hideo and Carolyn, his goal remains elusive. All of the Six except Johanna stand there on the beach. The Slick Six may never be whole again, although Marco believes one redeeming act can change that and reunite his new family: together they will shatter the slave trade, destroy the Aardvark once and for all. This will be the final, triumphant moment of the Slick Six.

Throughout his life Marco has known only one constant: violence. Since his roots as a child soldier in Latin America when he shot a friend through a direct order, to his days learning the trade at the hands of a master assassin, Marco trained his mind and body in the art of death. This art also keeps him alive, through his nearly super-human skills. I believe that Liberation merits strong consideration for the Prometheus Awards. The title covers not just the aim of freeing modern slaves, but freeing oneself. For just as Marco is driven to free slaves, he also must free himself from his past. Only then will his restless soul relax, find a home, happiness, a future.

Brian Francis Slattery writes with a unique voice. From the first few lines the story takes hold and refuses to let go. He weaves in story lines and connections through past, present, and future like a vast tapestry. The fluid, fast-paced narrative overcomes any hints of jarring edits by making every element interesting and amusing; the writing style is simply superb. Once again Tor manages to discover a unique talent, one that skates on the edge of the definitions of SF, but executes that action deftly and confidently.

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