Cyberpunk is now roughly forty years old. With relevant works from writers like James Tiptree Jr. and John Brunner appearing in the 60s and 70s, it coalesced into a recognizable trend in the early 80s—the four decades since having seen a full exploration of the idea of ‘cyberpunk’ through hundreds of stories and books. Thus, in 2016, how does a writer do something original with the form? With its imagery and characters, settings and ideas well established, there is probably only one way: deliver unique prose combined with a competent package. Matt Hill, in his 2016 Graft, does precisely this.
Set in a near-future England after economic collapse, Graft slips quickly and easily through four viewpoints: Roy (an agitated killer), Sol (a wiz mechanic), Mel (Sol’s former girlfriend who now runs a brothel), and Y (an indeterminate being seemingly living in an alternate world). Roy in the wrong place and the wrong time, Sol agreeing to build one of the strangest vehicles he’s ever been requested of, Mel hiring a strange, almost inhuman bodyguard for brothel, and Y just trying to find herself, in a matter of days the four’s lives intertwine as a new threat settles onto the decayed landscape of Manchester.
In telling these four’s stories, Hill’s prose is wonderfully off-kilter. I will have to take other reviewers’ comments for granted that the dialogue and wordplay are most closely tied to Manchester, England, either way, it makes for a chewy narrative that can be enjoyed for the writing alone. Adding a semi-twist is the novel’s structure. Y’s portion of the novel kept separate in terms of chapterization, her backstory is told through an isolated lens, particularly the events leading up to her collision—meeting—with Sol, Roy, and Mel. While Hill pushes the main storyline at a fast pace in the other chapters, he builds mystery in Y’s—where is she from, how does she get to Manchester, what is going on in her world—all valid questions that keep the pages turning.
In the end, Graft is tried and true cyberpunk that bears its influences on its sleeve—William Gibson’s Sprawl, Walter Jon Williams’ Hardwired, and Nick Harkaway’s The Gone Away World, seem clear, though there are likely others. Hill adding his own flavor to the mix with an eclectic narrative voice, the book uses a split narrative to positive effect, telling of one person’s enslavement, escape, and revenge. I’ve read that Hill doesn’t mind Graft being read as novel about human trafficking, but to call it a political or socially conscientious novel is a stretch. The focus is on plot and prose as Y gets her revenge, meaning it’s much easier to relax and let Hill take the reader along his zip line of cyberpunk in the 21 st century.