Marginalia by Laney Cairo – review

Rating: 7/10 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆ Title: Marginalia from Torquere Press’ Spiked Anthology
Author: Laney Cairo
Genre: Speculative Fiction – m/m Romance
URL: Torquere Press
Price: US$5.95 for e-book/ US $13.95 for paperback (as part of the Spiked anthology)
Other Information/warnings: Explicit m/m sex, extreme body modification

Summary [from the publisher]: Laney Cairo’s Marginalia pits cutter Bailey and his new love Quint against the government and the big corporations. Will they be able to save Quint?

My Review: Marginalia is author Laney Cairo’s entry in Spiked, Torquere Press’ body modification anthology, and it is definitely an interesting, dystopian riff on that theme. To be upfront and honest, dytopian novels/novellas are generally not my favorite things to read, many entries in the genre often laden with a maze of details that can sometimes be indecipherable as the author constructs their world. However, it is the dytopian aspects of this novella at which the author excels.

Set in a future Sydney, Australia, Marginalia follows the story of Baily, a “cutter” for one of the mega corporations which have become part and parcel with this future. Not a doctor – just a cutter – Baily’s daily grind consists of inserting into clients the body modifications that are the mainstay of SineCare, a corporation focused on developing new and innovative ways to color your cheeks, increase your sexual pleasure, better your life in some trendy way. In short, they exist to help people in this Orwellian society feel fuller, look better, or find some way to stand out amongst the crowd. But not too far out from the crowd.

By day, Baily exists in a corporate, stagnant world of hermitically sealed buildings, piped in air and the ever watchful eye of the corporation. However, unlike many of his colleagues, he has chosen not to spend his life in the luxury of corporate-provided housing, selecting a home in the real world of the disaffected. In short, he lives an almost double life, a life in the margins of both societies.

Baily relishes his freedom from the confines of his workday life and ventures out into the world, ultimately meeting Quint, a bartender at a seedy establishment, whose extensive, non-professional body mods are vastly appealing to Baily, but whose is an “illegal.”. The two embark upon a romance, albeit a romance of convenience for Baily, and when the government seizes the illegal Quint, their developing relationship takes a new turn.

OK…let’s start with the minor issues I had with the piece. While Cairo is definitely talented in creating worlds and draws the social aspects of this dystopia really well, the political aspects are a bit fuzzy for me, lacking in enough detail for me to truly understand why Quint ends up in the situation he does. It’s a minor flaw and one that only becomes an issue when the plot begins. A little more detail, a little more clarity with respect for the politics would have been welcomed.

The pacing of the piece drags a bit for me, with more than half of it spent establishing the new relationship between Baily and Quint. Ultimately, however, these pages are so focused on the sexual elements of their relationship that the emotional connection gets muddled and the set-up becomes a bit repetitive. I felt that some of the relationship could have either been edited down, or altered to spotlight more the emotional bond meant to be developing between the two as that bond will become important when the plot kicks in.

Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot that I like in the set up. The characters are well drawn and appealing and the contrast between the two men is fascinating: both living their lives in some marginalized way, each seeing something appealing in the other. The body mods represent different things to each of them and this gives a really nice punch to the piece. For Baily, who performs mods all day – mods that are noting but a trend, superficial additions made to give the individual some sense of uniqueness – Quint’s mods are alluring because they are so opposite what he is used to. For Quint, the extreme modifications he has undertaken are a genuine expression of who he is, what his life has been. It’s a little bit of social commentary, woven nicely into the piece.

Cairo has a nice eye for details and the locals of the piece are well drawn, atmospheric and inserted into Sydney quite well. For those who have never been to that city, the description is full enough for you to picture it all in your own head. For those who have been there, enough recognizable features survive so that you can build upon what you know. The author’s eye for detail also serves to create a rich, deeply flawed world. The use of medical terminology, though a bit jarring at first (I’m not big on techno-babble), serves the world-building extremely well. What the readers get is a very antiseptic view of Baily’s world and a depressive yet vibrant view of Quint’s. It is a well written piece, complex and for a reader who is not “big” on dystopia works, Cairo managed to bring me into a fascinating world.

It is in this speculative world that the author truly makes her mark; yet, her skill at creating this troubling world, in some respects, creates the biggest flaw for me in the piece. As a romance or a piece of erotica, the story never really worked for me. The nearly medical detachment, the oppressiveness of the world and the opposite ends of the spectrum of the two characters are so well drawn that they seep into the relationship. Coupled with the intense focus on the sexual which I discussed earlier, and Quint never became for me anything more than an exotic walk on the wild side for Baily. Baily’s need for something beyond the blandness in his life never allows for him to see the real man behind the mods. The result is a sterility to the relationship that mirrors the antiseptic feel of the world, and when it becomes vital for Baily to rescue Quint – to put his life and career on the line – I never quite bought it.

While, ultimately, the romantic aspects of the piece didn’t hit home, this piece has a lot to say between the words and, in some ways, the stasis the romance wallows in serves the greater good of the story. I think what Cairo has offered up is a fascinating observation of objectification, conformity, the effects of corporate globalization, and the fatal flaws in generic gentrification of the world. That’s a trip well worth the price of admission.