Had K.W. Jeter been producing in the 1950s and 1960s (like his mentor Philip
K. Dick), he'd be remembered and praised much in the same way Dick (or Thomas
M. Disch or Philip Jose Farmer) is remembered: as a vanguard of American SF's
New Wave, breaking new ground and advancing the possibilities beyond mere genre.
As it stands, Jeter began publishing in the 1980s, when the bottom line was
(and is still) god. The majority of his books are out of print, and unless something
happens, I don't see any profits-only minded publisher going out on a limb to
risk this quarter's revenues on an author who didn't deliver dollar-wise the
But don't start shedding any tears for Jeter yet. While his original works
are out of print, the variety of Star Wars and Star Trek (as well
as Blade Runner and Alien Nation) mass-market serials he's written
have probably kept the wolf from the door. One of his Star Wars novels
(from the "Star Wars: The Bounty Hunter Wars" mini-series) even ended
up on the New York Times bestseller list for several weeks.
However, for anyone interested in unique and brain warping SF that transcends
(and even transgresses) the boundaries of the normal, Jeter's work needs to
be examined. While I may sometimes have gripes with his writing style (see below),
I cannot deny his books their incredible inventiveness and storylines. Dr.
Adder (written in 1972, published in 1984) is probably Jeter's most (in)famous
work, with its quasi-pornographic (at least to the squares) tale of a post-whatever
L.A.'s most popular psycho-sexual surgeon and his quest for revenge, but I personally
prefer the novelist's Farewell Horizontal. (Most people champion Dr.
Adder, though, and it is worthwhile to check out-even if just for the "sheer
weirdness" factor-but I think the book suffers from a case of "everything
including the kitchen sink": Jeter burdens his freshman effort with almost
too many wild and head-spinning ideas. We are treated to amputee fetishism,
giant chickens, right-wing Christian cannibal cults, a depressed bug-slug from
outer space, assassination parties, cybernetic killing arms, deaf and blind
uber-telepaths, the most extreme case of vagina dentata that I can ever recall
in literature, and so on. The book is like a punk rock band's first record that's
crammed to the brim with too much good stuff because the band isn't sure if
they'll ever get another chance. By the way, I don't feel that the punk rock
analogy is off the mark: Jeter's early novels have the same delightfully anarchic
energy, borderline nihilism and spit-in-your-eye anger that permeates early
punk rock, especially the noise from the L.A. scene - which isn't surprising
as the City of Angels was Jeter's old stomping grounds during that era.)
Set on the outside of a huge cylindrical building that towers above the clouds,
Jeter's Farewell Horizontal (published as a Signet paperback in 1989)
does what the best SF is supposed to do: stimulate the imagination. Rather than
mollycoddle and stultify the brain, Jeter's book prods and excites it with wild
Jeter's protagonist here is Ny Axxter, a freelance graffex (a sort of CGI graffiti
artist) who lives on the Vertical, the exterior of the Cylinder, along with
all the other rogues, miscreants and non-conformists. That's right, they live
on the outside of this building, most of the time doing stuff sideways. Think
Inside the Cylinder, on the Horizontal, live all the squares and factory drudges.
At the very top live the wealthy privileged elite. In the skies above the Cylinder,
however, float the Angels, the end product of a long-forgotten military experiment
that resulted in beautiful flying mutants. Meanwhile, further inside the Cylinder,
are the spooky and mysterious Dead Centers
With the aid of cybernetic boot tentacles and a plethora of other similar devices,
people like Axxter scrounge around the Cylinder's exterior trying to eke out
a living. Axxter is on the brink of poverty when he scores a big gig: creating
new graffex for one of the top military tribes on the Vertical, the Havoc Mass.
It looks like Axxter is about to make it to easy street when he's horribly betrayed
by persons unknown, gets unwittingly stuck in the middle of a massive power
struggle/conspiracy between military tribes, and he has to run for his life.
Farewell Horizontal is exciting top notch SF. Jeter creates a world
that, while weird, works. He's wisely not obsessed with explaining the mechanics
of the building (unlike, say Larry Niven with his Ringworld), just giving
the right amount of information to cover as much of the bases as are needed.
Jeter is a font of new ideas, and he has a keen eye for detail (especially sociological
detail). Farewell Horizontal is perfect pulpy Sci-Fi action for anybody
who has ever wished that Iain M. Banks "Culture" books weren't so,
The book's greatest flaw is its protagonist: he's such an amazing puke that
you sometimes you want the Havoc Mass and its megassassins to tear him apart.
Ny keeps seeing new things, yet stupidly and foolishly holds on to his proven-to-be-outdated
ways of thinking. He becomes a character amazing in his stupidity-worse than
stupid: willfully ignorant.
While Philip K. Dick's characters were whiny creeps who were slobs and everyman
surrogates, Jeter's whiny creeps are guys who should know better. And
like his characters, Jeter sometimes can't seem to help but fuck things up.
His characters' learning curves drop shockingly at points just so that the plot
can be maneuvered into a certain direction. So while action-packed, the book
simultaneously lacks spontaneity: it feels like it has been too well planned
out. This feeling is compounded by Jeter's having characters spend too much
time thinking in the middle of action. It slows down the action for the reader
and often feels fake: too thought out. When Axxter is initially betrayed
(a scene I'll admit is brilliant in its execution up until this point), his
internal monologue stops the action cold. I was annoyed that the excellent pace
that had been established was brought to a standstill in such a jarring manner,
for something that could have been just as easily presented later, perhaps in
a scene where the protagonist is trying to catch his breathe after escaping
a murderous gang of enraged warriors.
This might seem slight, but I was also bugged by the anachronistic use of "Jesus"
and related terms as an expletive. I always appreciate it when authors go through
the trouble to try and create new slang and lingo and with all the other imagination
being flung about this novel, it seems like sheer laziness that an attempt wasn't
made. Plus the fact that I don't believe that the inhabitants of some weird
building about 1,000 years from now would still be calling out the name of the
Christian deity-not especially when the continued existence of any form of the
Christian church is never brought up. I know that characters in a contemporary
non-genre novel can bandy about all sorts of slang without any explanation of
it and no one bats an eye, but if characters in a novel set 1,000 years ago
started speaking in contemporary vernacular, you'd definitely take notice.
Farewell Horizontal was originally planned as the first entry in a trilogy,
so perhaps Jeter was planning to eventually explain everything. But I for one
like the fact that there's a lot of stuff (characters' background, situations'
histories, and so on) that never get explained away. Because it's so brilliantly
wigged out, Farewell Horizontal scores an 8/10, in spite of my eventually
despising the protagonist. Nonetheless I'm glad I read this book: having read
it makes you feel like, well, you've been turned on to something special and
unique and raw and almost feral. You might not like it, but you've got to admire
its uniqueness. To use a specific analogy again, it's like discovering a really
awesome punk rock band that hardly anybody's heard of, but those who have heard
their music? Baby, they're in the know.