These days, the cynic in all of us believes the world is going to hell in a handbasket. It’s difficult not to turn on the television without hearing or seeing how corporations and religion are influencing politics and vice versa. Trying to make sense of it all is tough, but if we were suddenly thrust into this world with no knowledge of how things worked it would be next to impossible. That’s the fate facing Jack, aka The Nowhereman, the main character of John Trevillian’s The A-Men.
The story takes place a couple of centuries in our future, on an Earth where corporations run and own just about everything. The author begins the story in the aftermath of the corporations withdrawing from the planet, and how the remaining populace changes in order to survive. The story feels like it’s made up of three acts, the first of which introduces our five main characters: Dr. Glass, Pure, 23rdxenturyboy, Sister Midnight, and Jack, each of whom brings something a little different to the table in a society in decay. Each chapter bounces from one character to another, repeating the order to keep everyone at the same point in the book’s timeline.
The characters are all very different in their demeanors, motives, and places in the world, so surely there’s something to appeal to everyone. I was frustrated early on with Dr. Glass’ mad scientist techno-jargon. I found it easy to get bogged down in the descriptions of his project, a Matrix-like world called the X-Isle and the technology involved with running it. Pure’s character gives the reader a look at the moral decay of Earth’s remaining denizens as she and her transvestite friend Lucille jump from one drug-induced bad decision to another. 23rdxenturyboy and his man-dog pal Elliot provide arguably the only levity of the story with their childlike innocence, enthusiasm, and hero worship in the form of an obsession with cartoons and comics. Sister Midnight plays one of the more fleshed-out characters with her dual role as both soldier and religious devotee. Her strength of will and fortitude help give the reader a grounded sense as chaos erupts later in the story. Tying it all together we’re introduced to Jack, a soldier who begins his story by waking up with no memory. The only thing Jack knows is that he intentionally had his memory wiped. Jack’s segments are the longest in the book as he copes with both seeking out his unknown past and navigating the immediate dangers of the present.
Throughout the introduction to these characters, it can be difficult to find a purpose in a few of them. Aside from Sister Midnight and Jack, none of the characters were interacting with each other in their stories, occasionally making it a jarring transition going from chapter to chapter. That kind of convention works a lot better in a Tarantino or Ritchie movie. It left me feeling much like Jack – lost without a clue. While Pure and 23rdxenturyboy are both interesting in their own ways, they only play minor diversions as the bulk of the story is told through Jack. Jack plays the part of the asshole from start to finish and it can be difficult to root for him at times. However, the contrasting styles of Jack and Midnight are enjoyable and only become more pronounced as the story progresses. Long-standing debates like religion versus science and order versus chaos play out through these two emblematic characters.
The story really picks up in its second act during which Sister Midnight and Jack are part of a military raid on a former corporate center, tasked with removing all civilians from the area. Their plans quickly evaporate under the resistance from the various gangs that have taken hold of the area, now called Dead City. This segment is heavy on Tom Clancy-esque action, but in its quiet moments finally start to reveal some backstory through Jack’s involuntary flashbacks and his forays into a fairy-tale book he possesses called Forevermore. We also finally begin to see the first integration of Pure and 23rdxenturyboy’s stories as they are both planetside during the invasion. The former’s escape is utter chaos and the latter’s a strange mix of absurdity and sadness. Although pieces are still missing in the backstories of these characters, the well-written action segments are arguably some of the strongest in the book and help reign in the confusion for awhile.
As Jack and Midnight’s plans completely fall apart, the story enters its final stage. Gang warfare and basic survival are the focus in what quickly becomes a Road Warrior-like setting. It’s at this point where the fragmented story fully comes together. Jack and Midnight’s neverending arguments eventually result in his takeover of the team and formation of the titular group the A-Men. Jack sees it as a means to start over in a world gone to hell. In a truly grindhouse nod, Pure joins up with a gang of supermodel warriors before eventually joining up with Jack. Once there, her character finally gets some added depth. 23rdxenturyboy inadvertently hooks up with the group and we finally learn a little bit about who he is, though it’s frustrating that it took so long for details to emerge that were not important in the grand plot. Dr. Glass also plays a more central role as the other players eventually come across him and his operation, and a thrilling, action-packed conclusion is set in motion at his behest. We also find out the real history of Jack including who he was and why his brain was wiped.
By and large the final act of the story is enjoyable, but there are a few problems. Some of Jack’s choices and actions were not understandable. Without giving away too much plot, after wooing Midnight back to the team he immediately runs off with another woman, leaving behind the team he fought so hard to build and the woman he just fought so hard to win back. It’s a given that the man has had his brain worked over, but either his actions are annoyingly inconsistent or the passage of time in this segment wasn’t properly conveyed. Dr. Glass’s operation was also never completely clear to me. What was the endgame for the virtual world he was trying to create, and why was his self-written fairy-tale collection Forevermore central to the virtual world? Those stories play a big part in Jack’s evolution and the life he tries to create in the real world, but it’s not clear what it all means to Dr. Glass.
My feelings about this book changed about as often as Jack’s motivations. At times it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the technical aspects of Dr. Glass’s machinations. I found a few of the main characters underused – despite their intriguing personalities and situations – until far too late in the book. However, there is a lot to take away from the story as well. There are a lot of debates here common to this and other mediums that don’t exactly tread new water, yet are still interesting due to the setting in which they’re employed. Pop culture elements from movies like Total Recall, The Road Warrior, Escape From New York and other sci-fi works and pulpy classics find their way into the story. I think fans of those films will find a lot to enjoy in this particular dystopian world. As the first entry in a planned trilogy, I’m looking forward to seeing not only how Jack continues to evolve, but how the storytelling does as well.
The A-Men, by John Trevillian. Publisher: Matador; 1st edition (29 Mar 2010)
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