Review: Smoketown by Tenea D. Johnson

An intriguing speculative novel about the social aftermath of a viral epidemic, told from the points of view of three intertwined characters, none of whom meet.

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All of them know something about the circumstances of a terrible contagion that killed a quarter of their city's population 25 years ago, but none of them know everything. What's more, not all of them know that they know.

Smoketown by Tenea D. Johnson: what's it about?

Anna Armour is an artist, a young woman compelled to create, whose special gift sometimes makes more of her creations than any artist in our own time could hope. She's searching for a woman who is special to her for a number of reasons, and one of those is love.

Dr. Eugenio Oliveira is a medical anthropologist. 25 years ago, the city of Leiodare was ravaged by a contagion so powerful that it killed a quarter of the population. Now birds, vilified disease vectors, are outlawed, kept out of the city by a double fence, but Eugenio has his reasons for wanting to believe that they may not have been to blame for the epidemic.

Rory McLaren is an ageing relic, the richest man in the city, living his life in self-isolation since the disease took hold and killed his family.

Smoketown is about virtual reality, about the power of the media, corruption in public services, and the puppetry of money. It's about the small stories of people and how those fit into the wider narrative of community (and how they don't). It's about the importance of communities of colour to culture, how they adapt to change, and their ability to stand outside the main framing of society and throw a metaphorical spanner in the works when the time really comes. It's full of beautiful world building with precise and sometimes sparse writing that effortlessly builds images in your mind.

What's special about it?

There are a few areas that make Smoketown a must-read in 2020.

Firstly, the roles played by people of colour in Smoketown are written the way they always should be, irreplaceably integral to the story. The quiet activism of the Mendejanos, with their emphasis on fixing the things that have gone wrong for the city contrasts stunningly with the activism of the city-born Starlings, hellbent on destruction. The beauty of Smoketown itself, an area that was always a black neighbourhood, is in its adaptation to change, the community pulling together where white neighbourhoods only work for their own individual survival/destruction, and the strength of the characters it has produced.

Secondly, Smoketown may have been published in 2011, but without giving too much away, it's pretty darn current, given the much-publicized epidemic of the latest coronavirus at the time of writing. Despite being set in the nearish future, its underlying commentary on the susceptibility of people to build social panic around half-truths disseminated by the marionnette media is as stark as it is clear.

Thirdly, my theory is that this book is structured like a symphony. Literally. Johnson is a musician, and Smoketown's elements flow together suspiciously well. The opening chapter introduces a powerful first theme, where the reader learns about Anna's important gift, which causes some interesting tension. We also learn about her desire to find her friend, a second, softer theme of love, yearning and a little sadness. Then comes a section of exposition, bringing the reader up to date with recent history. Literally, the exposition of the piece.

The main of the story now comes into development, as further important characters are introduced, their motivations opened out, and the plot becomes clearer. It ends in the same order as it began, with the main theme introduced in the opening brought in with a powerful crescendo as Anna achieves something she probably never imagined she would do, and closes quietly on the second, softer theme, which is finally resolved.

This is some sophisticated writing, not just word choice, concise-yet-powerful description and innovation in its ideas, but structurally it's clever a.f. (For me, this is a reason to read it. I realise structure isn't everyone's thing).

Will you like it?

This is literature in the guise of genre, an LGBT f/f romance of sorts, though that isn't the main deal by any stretch. It's near future--near enough to recognise that Anna probably works for Amazon - with realistic technology improvements that don't seem far off. If a present scientist squeezed their eyes really hard and employed some imagination, they could probably achieve most of the technology in Smoketown. Well, maybe.

If you're looking for some hard, sexy romance, this isn't it. It also leaves quite a few questions unanswered, so if you like everything explained in full, you might be left wanting. But it's thoughtful, clever, stunningly written and worthy of the 2011 Carl Brandon Society Parallax Award.

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