CBRIII Maneuver #2 – Yarn
Profile: Speculative Fiction, Near Future, “Fashionpunk”
Summary: From the back cover, “Tane Cedar is the master tailor, the supreme outfitter of the wealthy the beautiful, and the powerful. When an ex-lover, on the run form the authorities, asks him to create a garment from the dangerous and illegal Xi yarn – a psychedelic opiate – to ease her final hours, Tane’s world is torn apart. Armed with just his yarn pulls, scissors, Mini-Air-Juki handheld sewing machine, and his wits, Tane journeys through the shadowy underworld where he must untangle the deadly mysteries and machinations of decades of deceit.
Difficulty: Varies wildly
Rating: 4/5 Stars
After Action Report:
Somewhere after Akira and before Steamboy, the world of fiction fell in love with the –punk suffix. Cyberpunk, steampunk, magepunk; if it had angsty youth and was in a world of high adventure it was punk. Somewhere along the line, I think authors forgot that “punk” wasn’t just a descriptor of young counterculture enthusiasts, but also a summary of a general plotline, where the protagonist was fighting against the status quo. It might be a dystopian regime, a power superconglomerate or a shadowy secret society, but these kids needed something to rebel against. Jon Armstrong did not make that mistake when he crafted his dazzling, self-described Fasionpunk adventure, Yarn.
Dazzling is a completely apt descriptor of the book. Anyone who is remotely familiar with Japanese superflat style will recognize that familiar cadence in Armstrong’s novel. The descriptions come fast and hard and are built to both draw in the reader, while repulsing them. In a futuristic society where fashion is the only game in town, everything is saturated in color, style and sex. Beneath cities that are little more than enormous live-in malls, ‘slubs’ toil in BrandClans dedicated to a single agricultural crop, supporting the grandiose super consumer society.
Yarn is split into two stories, appropriately, woven together. The story of Tane Cedar’s past is the fashionpunk story of a young man who escapes the slubs only to get caught up in the whirlpool of fashion and intrigue that is the city of Seattlehama. The second story is the present day Tane Cedar, a man who has risen to the apex of fashion as a master tailor, but one who has rejected the garish commercial supercites in favor of a more private and personal clientele.
In some ways, the stories are completely incompatible. We know that the rebellion that drives Tane’s past self ultimately fails because of the existence of the present story. Tane’s present self is very much a memorial to his past, and while he has achieved great success, it is within the bounds of the system he once attacked. Still, both stories are compelling adventures, and even though the present Tailor has retired from rabblerousing, he easily springs into action for an old friend. There’s plenty of action here if you want that, but there is also this deep criticism, not only of our own society, but of the concepts of rebellion and responsibility.
In some ways, Yarn is a light and entertaining read. The bad guys are obviously bad, the good guys are appropriately counterculture and the whole thing clips along at a “can’t put it down” pace. However, the whole thing is bogged down by the incredibly detailed cloth-speak that the book uses. Science fiction readers may well be familiar with technobabble, but unless you have a background with textiles or fashion, be prepared to spend some serious time on Wikipedia looking up terms. Of course, when the fashion gets high tech, the techno-cloth-speak is almost indecipherable. At several points in the story, these high concept ideas come screaming in too fast to really process. A notable example comes early in the book when Tane gets his hands on some sort of knitting machine that is best described as a cross between a NordicTrack and a loom. Even after rereading the chapter, I still didn’t have a clear idea of what the machine was doing, other than figuring out that somehow the ‘yarn’ it was using was probably a liquid.
Armstrong has created a really interesting little world here. Speculative Fiction is a great medium to work in and Armstrong has certainly earned himself a place with Yarn and its standalone sequel Grey. Stylistically, the book could use some work, but the problems with the prose stem mostly from a lack of focus. Yes, the nature of the world of Yarn lends itself to the unfocused style of the book, but if Armstrong is serious about really addressing the ‘Big Picture’ topics he’s selected, he needs to remember to let the reader digest some of his bombastic text.