By Zé Burns
Let me start by saying this is not a casual read for a lazy Saturday afternoon.
Reading The Orphanarium is an experience. S.T. Cartledge presents us with a story that couldn’t be told in any medium outside print. It’s hard to classify. The closest I can manage would be: experimental cyberpunk dystopian science-fantasy surrealism. To dismiss it as “sci-fi bizarro” would be a disservice to the art that the author has created.
The novel began as a poem, Cartledge states in the Author’s Note, before becoming prose. Remnants can be seen in the beautiful poetic rhythm he uses. Through dream-like narration, executed in the best sense, he creates a world and an aesthetic I never imagined possible. It is truly like nothing I’ve read before.
Cartledge transports us to the Orphanarium, “a city in a massive box, vacuum-sealed tight. No one is allowed outside.” It has to be one of the most imaginative settings in all of speculative fiction—at least that I’ve read.
Among its denizens are the twins Daff and Dil and their companions: the android Cyberia and their cyborg dog Killy. They are fleeing the Jingo, the cyborg lizard police of the Orphanarium. Meanwhile beyond the walls of the city, a war is brewing among the god-like Elementals. Centered in all this are the spines of the World Cactus. A prick from which shows you a memory from your life: one that’s happened or yet to happen.
This bizarre world is populated with android wizards, vampire penguins, gold robot dragons, and other preposterous characters that feel completely normal as you read. Even with names like the Bulletproof Child, the Moonhorse Juggernaut, or the Skypool Giant.
Unconventional concepts like relative time, memories of the future, and time vacuums root the reader in a world that is anything but linear. It is a book where things have happened/are happening/will happen–all at the same time.
Each chapter is given a designation rather than a number, with titles like “Chapter of the Giant Robot Dragons Dunked in Gold,” “Death of the Seahorse Man Chapter,” or my favorite: “The Fire Penguin/Vampire Penguin Apocalypse Chapter.”
The story experiments in point-of-view in ways I’ve never seen. The character of Dil is presented in the second person, though it is narrated from Daff’s point of view in the first. For a portion of the book, Dil inhabits Daff’s memories, told in first person plural while referring to a singular character (using pronouns like “ourself”). I can’t imagine this has ever been done before.
The experimental style is both its strength and its weakness. The poetics and dream-like narration hinder it in some ways, making it less approachable. And while beautiful and fascinating, I struggled to connect with the characters. Part Two, which is mostly a memory viewed by Daff, drags on far too long as he spectates a war between the Elementals.
If you want to be lost in a dreamscape, to marvel at beautiful writing and take a step back to savor it, this book is for you. But be prepared to take some time reading it. It is anything but a quick read.
Zé Burns is a Seattle-based author of horror and the surreal, an avid proponent of bizarro fiction, and a lover of all things weird. He is the editor-in-chief and owner of Babou 691. You can find him on Twitter at @ZeBurns or on his site: zeburns.com.