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There’s that cliché: don’t judge a book by its cover. And I try to always adhere to the rules of cliché, especially when they’re about books. So I really, really, try to not judge books by their covers. But every so often you get books which have frankly incomprehensible covers with octopuses, unicorns, semi-naked purple women and green men on them, accompanied by the tagline Punkoids! Slutoids! Octopus! and judging a book—at least slightly—by its cover is kind of inevitable. In fact, even fitting. Because Michael Morrissey’s Tropic of Skorpeo definitely lives up to the expectations this provides.
Inspired by Lewis Carroll, Shakespeare, Alfred Bester and Vonnegut (all of whom Morrissey dedicates this work to), it’s sort of Steampunk-meets-Space Opera, meshing disparate elements from science fiction and wider culture. The hero, Rhameo, is a “pounamu green” Prince—the firstborn of over 1700 sons—who eschews concerns of marriage and empire in order to hunt “li-tigons” (lion + tiger + lioness) on “Erath”: a simulated world populated by naked Amazons who want to “devirginize” their prey. Juraletta, the heroine, is the Princess of Qwerty, a place which turns out to not really exist: consisting only of Juraletta, her gorgon, a castle, a dwarf, a giant and a talking hedge which becomes a unicorn. And this is only the A plot: there’s not much breathing space.
This was my main problem with Tropic of Skorpeo. Morrissey’s approach, which seems to be to throw every possible reference at the page to see what sticks, while messy and discordant, is manageable. But there is very little that unifies the novel’s disparate elements into a coherent world. We get bogged down in the references and the jumps from scene to scene and world to world; it’s confusing and exhausting.
The best science fiction has a very clear idea of the world in which its story is being told, which this doesn’t. The conceptual geography of a science-fiction story world needs to be based in realism, however surreal it may become as the narrative progresses. While Morrissey plagues us with references which seem to imply a description, he never really describes anything, apart from a few of the main characters—Juraletta, in case you were wondering: purple, with four breasts. I’m still not sure if “Queen Beia” (an imperious queen, somehow partly created by the ineffectually evil Lord Maledor) is a woman or a bee or both, and how that could work: this lack of clarity is a serious issue.
This isn’t a book for kids, either: at times Tropic of Skorpeo is graphically sexual. In fact, problematically so. The moments of consensual sex are unnerving and overblown, emphasising the strangeness of these scenes rather than the eroticism. But there are also moments of non-consensual sex, or near sexual assault, which aren’t addressed with any concern. The narrative gaze on the female form—especially Juraletta’s, as a four-breasted virgin—is objectifying and kind of leery.
Tropic of Skorpeo isn’t exactly satire. Morrissey’s approach is at least somewhat serious, but there is definitely an element of tongue-in-cheek irony. The machinations of the plot and deus ex machina serving to coincidentally bring together the multitudes of characters and subplots certainly seems knowingly silly, and lines like “all around him, a sea of bosoms erupted from the earth like pink-skinned naked mole rats” can’t be taken too seriously. But sometimes this is diffused by Morrissey’s overburdened prose and multitudes of characters: the hilariously terrible can be fun, but he spends pages leading up to a halfhearted punchline which dramatically reduces its impact.
If you can get into it, Tropic of Skorpeo is fun. There’s some fighting, some kidnapping, two thwarted weddings, a love plot, and at one point Rhameo does go to sleep inside a giant vagina on a planet called Pornotopia. I guess it depends on what you’re into.