The three short stories which comprise Paintwork are all set in a future that in some respects feels as close as tomorrow, but a longer moment’s consideration of the technology that is almost a normal part of everyday life suggests that this future is perhaps not quite as close as one initially thought. It can be difficult to find an appropriate balance between the ‘gosh-wow new stuff’ approach and the fact that it should mostly be a normal and unremarked thing to the stories’ inhabitants, if not to readers. Post-Neuromancer, there is the danger when using themes such as augmented reality, street art or manga, this that authors are rehashing the same old ideas, using past cultural cues in lieu of new content, to evoke a sense of the futuristic. For the most part, Maughan lets the technology speak for itself but doesn’t always quite avoid the intrinsic self-consciousness that comes with such territory: the debate as to how much should the author divulge, how much should the reader be left to figure out is sometimes a little more visible than it ought to be.
Of the three stories, ‘Paparazzi’ suffers most from this. The quasi-anonymous John Smith is reduced to taking an assignment to gatecrash a beta version of new online game, and needs to spend a lot of time learning the game. It is a not unreasonable reworking of the modern advertising practice of creating a story where a story doesn’t exist but too much time is wasted in setting up the scenario, which isn’t a story itself, while the payoff is slight. I’d like to believe that ‘Paparazzi’ is in some way performative of its theme, but the fact remains that it is the weakest of the three stories, for all that it contains a pertinent nugget of observation about the way in which the press both manipulates and is in turn manipulated.
Instead, let us turn to ‘Paintwork’ itself and to ‘Havana Augmented’, both of which, among other things, explore the idea of art and the environment in which it occurs, and most importantly, with the nature of artistic integrity. ‘Paintwork’ itself is about the making of art, and what it is that makes it authentic. Is it craft or is it result that matters? And following that, is the satisfaction to be gained from doing it properly personal or something more than that?
These are the questions that 3Cube, a ‘writer’, has to grapple with during the course of the story. The meaning of ‘writer’ has obviously shifted since the present day. Cube’s ‘art’ is as much coding and stencil-cutting as it is pictorial (3D, even, given the technology at his disposal). He takes a pride in his various skills, and in doing things the ‘old-fashioned way’. However, all this is called into question when his newest set of artworks are sabotaged almost before they’ve been witnessed. It would spoil the story’s denouement to go into much more detail, but it revolves around a fascinating set of dichotomies about art as inspiration or product, about the fashion in technologies, whether art is somehow more worthwhile if you go about it in one way or another.
What distinguishes Cube from his fellow artists is something best characterised as a romantic streak. He is engaged with the notion of art as a way of achieving personal transformation, and as having the power to transform others, while most of the artists he knows seem to regard it as a commercial enterprise. Maughan seems to be suggesting that this is the artist’s quintessential dilemma, no matter what the medium he works in, and this idea spills over into ‘Havana Augmented’, which is a joyful and outrageous story of young games programmers who have moved a virtual game into the augmented reality of their spex and are now playing Rolling Iron through the streets of Havana. Inevitably governments and big business become involved, and I can’t deny that the story’s ending smacks somewhat of the fairytale, but in the end, why not? 3Cube is criticised by fellow artists for being too optimistic, for seeking the beauty buried within the grim, trying to remind people that there is hope of something better, and for Paul and Marcus, there is a similar prize at stake in their dealings with the outside world.
In all, Paintwork is a very enjoyable and thought-provoking collection of stories about the place of art in the future. For further details about Paintwork, go here.
Disclosure notice: ebook of Paintwork provided, unsolicited, by Tim Maughan.