In “Tamagotchi”, one of the short stories in Adam Marek’s second collection, The Stone Thrower, the narrator wonders “what kind of demented mind would create a child’s toy” that was capable of catching AIDS. Reading through whole collection, it is at times difficult not to wonder about the state of mind of the author himself. From virtual pets with real viruses, to school uniforms which repair bodies bruised and burned by endless suicide attacks, from plantations tended to by “slave” chimps clad in corporate t-shirts, to dump trucks which deposit consignments of human corpses on unsuspecting doorsteps rather than to the arranged delivery point, Marek presents us with a present and near-future which are at once decidedly familiar and chillingly different.
At the heart of this dystopian world lies the troubled relationship between man and machine. In “Fewer Things”, the fish plucked from the choking gulls’ mouths are weighed and measured, the numbers recorded on a laptop and “sent off somewhere to be analysed”. Significantly however, the first-person narrator notes that these numbers “don’t record any of the things that I remember: the way the chick’s eyes widen as the fish starts to back out of its throat, the smell of Dad’s bag, or the sound of the chick’s feet as it skips across the sand”. In “Without a Shell”, the protagonist – haunted by the Taliban-style execution of his soldier father – attends a school where a nanotech school uniform both marks the pupils out as terrorist targets (the uniform is reserved for the “elite”) but simultaneously protects and repairs their bodies when the attacks occur. Yet the boy can find freedom and acceptance only when he discards the uniform and exposes himself to the risks that the real world has to offer. Elsewhere in the collection, tales of heroism and defiance against a superhero dictator, and of characters baulking at the ethical implications of cloned armies of worker chimps, or of the all too familiar problem of mobile phones impinging on the privacy of a family picnic, suggest an underlying tone of human resistance to the march of the machines.
But the strongest human emotion which links the stories together is that of a parent’s desire to look after their child. The collection is replete with troubled children, more specifically sons, and parents who will do most anything to protect them and, for all the collection’s dark and dystopian imaginings, it is the very real joys and frustrations of caring for such vulnerable children which colour the stories and make The Stone Thrower such compelling reading. Whether in the form of an impromptu road-trip to allay a son’s fear of hurricanes in “The Stormchasers”, or a child literally coming apart at the seams in “A Thousand Seams”, or a mother’s frustration at the endless bureaucracy involved in acquiring a statement of special educational needs for her son in “Earthquakes”, these futuristic tales of the unexpected and the bizarre are, ultimately, rooted in the very real challenges faced on a daily basis by parents such as Marek, whose own son is autistic.
In one of the stories in the collection, the narrator announces “I just can’t bear it…[t]his perpetual gloom”. He is, in fact, referring to his son, who has just announced the death of his imaginary friend (stop and think about that one for a moment). I fear that for some, however, the feeling of perpetual gloom may neatly sum up the experience of reading this book. That would be a shame, for Marek’s stories are challenging and thought provoking, and his writing is original and interesting. Connoisseurs of the short story and fans of dystopian fiction will likely find much to enjoy in The Stone Thrower but the collection will reward the casual reader too, if they can get past the first few queasy moments.