Review of The People’s Republic of Everything
Mamatas, Nick. The People’s Republic of Everything. Tachyon Publications, 2018.
Nick Mamatas (born 1972) is an award-nominated American fantasy, horror and speculative fiction and non-fiction writer, known for his anarchist political commitment. His most well-know works are the novels Move Under Ground (2005), I am Providence (2016), Second Shooter (2021) and his non-fiction book, Starve Better: Surviving the Endless Horror of the Writing Life (2011).
The People’s Republic of Everything is his fourth short stories collection. It is comprised of 14 short stories and Under My Roof, a novella-length story. It draws upon multiple genres, from political steampunk (“Arbeitskraft”) to science fiction (“Walking with a Ghost”), social-realism (“North Shore Friday”) and dystopian fiction (“Under My Roof”). Although there is no real narrative nor thematic unity in the volume, Mamatas’s peculiar irony and political views can be seen as the red thread connecting the stories.
We can, however, loosely regroup them under three main categories: political, realistic and poetic. The works making up the first of these categories are “Arbeitskraft”, “The People’s Republic of Everything,” “The Glottal Stop,” “We Never Sleep,” and “Under My Roof.” Under the banner of “realistic” are “Tom Silex, Spirit Smasher,” “The Phylactery,” “North Shore Friday,” “A Howling Dog,” and “Lab Rat”. Finally, “Walking with a Ghost,” “The Great Armored Train,” “Slice of Life,” “The Spook School,” and “The Dreamer of the Day” form the poetic corpus.
The stories that are contained in the political category perfectly illustrate Nick Mamatas’s anarchistic views. “Arbeitsskraft,” for example, imagines Engels, Marx’s friend and co-author, as a Frankenstein-inspired steampunk character set on creating a collective, revolutionary mind based on dialectal materialism with the help of cyborg-like match girls. In the same manner, “We Never Sleep” features Rudolf Diesel, the inventor of the fuel bearing his name, as a crazy scientist living in an underground laboratory in a parallel world setting and creating a brand new ideology with the help of a pulp writer. In these stories, Mamatas uses his anarchist position to make fun of and criticize both capitalism’s and communism’s positivist ideology, putting them back-to-back in their dangerous delusion. With the novella “Under My Roof”, Mamatas turns to a more Pynchonesque or Vonnegutian style of story, in which family man Daniel Weinberg builds a nuclear weapon in his basement with the help of his son and secedes from the United States by founding the free state of “Weinbergia.” Beyond the wacky humoristic narration, Mamatas tackles the notions of nation, freedom, and domestic politics in a way reminiscent of Hunter S. Thompson’s political writings.
The realistic stories uncover a lesser-known and more personal aspect of Mamatas’s narratives. Although they more or less belong to the noir, speculative fiction or weird horror genres, they stand out as being built on more personal aspects of Mamatas’s life. It is an interesting choice of works and it pushes the collection towards a fictional self-portrait of the author that we could definitely link with some Philip K. Dick’s works. “The Phylactery,” for instance, is based on Greek traditions and family anecdotes before moving into specific territory. It also gives the traditional Mamatas reader or a newcomer insight into how his fiction can be built on personal references and how it is transmogrified in the stories. Obvious non-genre references that come to mind are Jack Kerouac’s Dr. Sax, which is a pulp horror tale combined with childhood memories told in stream-of-consciousness style, or William S. Burroughs’s series of novels, which blend first-hand experiences and nightmarish visions. In that way, Mamatas seems to be continuing the Beat tradition and pointing at creative possibilities in their wake, an echo of what he did with his 2005 Beat and Cosmic Horror novel, Move Under Ground.
Finally, we come to a set of stories that moves away from classical genre definitions and that could fall into the “poetic” field in the largest sense possible. In “Walking with a Ghost”, the main character, Melanie, creates a virtual version of Lovecraft, which has become sentient. By blending the figure of the founder of cosmic horror into a speculative fiction A. I. narrative through anecdotes linked to Melanie’s life, Mamatas displaces the traditional tropes of horror and future technology to the periphery of the story, and chooses to focus instead on the strange relationship between his main character and Lovecraft, creating a strangely poetic moment. The same can be said of “The Great Armored Train”, in which Leon Trotsky is confronted by a supernatural phenomenon during the 1917 Russian Revolution, more precisely the ability of a young woman to transform into a lethal owl. Here, by leaving the truth undecided (is the transformation real, or, as Trotsky is convinced, just an illusion?), Mamatas manages to suspend the reader’s disbelief, which is one of the essences of poetry. Once again, Mamatas proves his reluctance as a writer to be easily categorized and the fact that a genre cannot be reduced to a list of tropes and styles.
If The People’s Republic of Everything is not a truly coherent collection, it will nonetheless be of interest to the classic Mamatas readers precisely because of its wide range of styles and stories and for any reader because of the multiple influences that one can find within or behind their constructions. It also questions many definitions of genres (from horror to speculative fiction, and even steampunk, for that matter), as it chooses to veer towards the literary instead of the usual plots and structures. Yevgueny Zamyatin, Karel Čapek, Kurt Vonnegut, Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs are more obvious references than, say, Michael Moorcock, H.P. Lovecraft, Philip K. Dick and Vernor Vinge. The People’s Republic of Everything is therefore a bit of a side-track in Nick Mamatas’ works, but interesting precisely because of its undefinable and undefining nature
Seb Doubinsky is a bilingual French dystopian writer and poet. He is the author of the City-States Cycle, comprising, among others, The Babylonian Trilogy, The Song Of Synth, Missing Signal, The Invisible, and Paperclip. Missing Signal, published by Meerkat Press, won the Bronze Foreword Reviews Award in the Best Science-Fiction Novel category in 2018. He lives in Denmark with his family and teaches literature, history and culture in the French department of Aarhus University.