I feel cheated. Spares isn’t really about spares – clones created to provide convenient, fuss-free body parts when their rich, conscienceless originals damage their own. The spares might be there at the start, but then they get… amputated. The story that remains is an able, fast-paced thriller, but it’s not the one I expected or the one I would have preferred.
I think a re-titling is in order. “Jack Randall’s Redemption” perhaps, because the book is more about Jack than the spares he tries to save. Jack is a burnt-out ex-cop and ex-soldier with a drug addiction, a drinking problem, and a price on his head. He regularly admits, and others complain, that he’s not terribly smart, although terribly reckless would be a better description. A bunch of goons describe him as “the big fucked-up guy”. He’s the quintessential fallen man with a dark, secret past and a truckload of guilt. He is one of the worst people to try and save a group of young, terrified clones owned and deemed sub-human by the customary evil corporation, but unfortunately he’s the only person who gives a shit.
The idea of the spares is utter horror. They spend their entire lives on isolated Farms, lying naked in underground tunnels, waiting to have their body parts removed without anaesthetic: “…none of the spares could speak. None of them could read. None of them could think. The tunnels were a butcher’s shop where the meat still moved occasionally, always and forever bathed in a dead blue light” (45) .
Every now and then, a team of doctors arrives to harvest a body part for a spare’s wealthy counterpart, slowly whittling the clones down to scarred torsos. When Jack’s duty finally gives way to his compassion and he teaches some of the spares to speak, think, and act like (relatively) normal human beings, it’s a bittersweet gift – what they gain in humanity is matched by the horror of understanding what is being done to them.
Admittedly, there are a few flaws here, the most obvious of which is how the spares could be treated so poorly when the uber-rich are paying for them. Without any exercise, wouldn’t their muscles atrophy? They’re regularly abused by the orderlies who come for their parts and by the supervisors employed to watch over the Farms, so surely someone would complain about receiving scarred transplants and skin grafts? On the whole, how do they remain healthy enough to be used as spares in the first place? But, niggling concerns aside, the spares are some of the most tragic characters I’ve ever come across, and I felt for them more than I have for any group of characters in a long time.
And then some bastard kidnaps all but one of them and they almost disappear from the novel. For the rest of the story the spares feature mostly when Jack reminds himself that he has to save the poor clones unless they’re already dead. He’s otherwise occupied with a serial killer investigation, strange people trying to shoot him, unfinished business with a mob boss, and rekindling his addiction to hard drugs. It’s as if Smith suddenly realised early on that he couldn’t, or didn’t want to run with the spares’ story for an entire novel.
I was a bit miffed by this, but Spares is saved by 4 things:
- Michael Marshall Smith is a great storyteller, even after ripping half the heart out of this tale. The thriller that remains is a little pulpy, but in a funny, self-deprecating way. Smith avoids the tedium of convention by making fun of it.
- Good writing. Smith just has really cool, witty sentences. In one line he can be funny and tragic, both brutal and heartfelt. When Jack first mentions the spares he says that they’re on “their last legs” (9), a joke Jack admits is in bad taste, but which also gave me an emotional connection to the spares that never faded.
- I like Jack. He’s a complete fuck-up, he’s a bastard, but he cares about the spares, he saves a mistreated cat, and he’s got a very satisfying passion for merciless justice.
- Funny AIs, crazy gadgets, and some whack-job ideas. And you really need that dose of humour and weirdness with all that blood splattering the walls.
Eventually I gave Smith the benefit of the doubt by conceding that a small group of teenagers who’ve only recently learned to stand up straight and haven’t quite mastered speech yet might not be as captivating after 250 pages as they were at 25, although they really deserved a bit more ink. However, you can read more about them in Smith’s excellent short story “To Receive is Better” (1994).
And as a sci fi noir thriller Spares doesn’t disappoint or fail to shock. It has a lot in common with Only Forward (1994), Smith’s first novel, which I really enjoyed. Jack is a rougher version of Stark, with a similarly dark sense of humour, a tragic past, and an intimate acquaintance with gore. Both novels also feature an alternate reality, but while Only Forward’s is a dreamworld that can be both a paradise and a nightmare, Spares‘ alternate world, known as The Gap, is a place of unrelenting terror where you have to be on hallucinogenic drugs just to stay sane and the light will burn the eyes out of your skull. Be warned that Spares has some truly grotesque violence, including some horrific sexual abuse, so sensitive readers might want to get their crime thrills elsewhere. But if you’ve got a stomach for the brutal I recommend this for a good read.