‘Faction Paradox: Weapons Grade Snake Oil’ reviewed

Kinetic prose and a cast of unpleasant but fascinating characters adorn Blair Bidmead’s full-length debut novel.


It’s sobering for those of us who were there at the time to think that Faction Paradox will be twenty years old in 2017. It somehow – and appropriately – seems vaguely wrong. Born in the Grant Morrison-esque fire of wit and ideas that was Lawrence Miles’s ‘Alien Bodies’ they were a cool as fuck time-travelling criminal voodoo cult that gave the nascent BBC Doctor Who book range the initial kick up the arse it needed. Once other writers had a chance to read Miles’s book they began to dominate the range, giving it a shape and narrative until a new editor decided a clean slate was needed and had them banished with The Ancestor Cell ritual. Like any good criminal they never gave up, mutating across publishers and media forms: books from Mad Norwegian and Random Static, comics from Image and audios from BBV and Magic Bullet. After all that rattling around they’ve found a long term home with the mighty Obverse Books, who kick off the anniversary year with Blair Bidmead’s full-length debut novel.

It’s a mighty debut too: smart, confident and unafraid of a good time. ‘Weapons Grade Snake Oil’ a heist novel and structured accordingly. It opens with a stylish homage to the likes of John Woo and Tarantino, a hyperviolent ballet from the book’s climax but without context. You can almost see the bullet time effect. From there the book backtracks to the necessary putting the of the gang together, a volatile chemical concoction primed to explode with the heist itself. Bidmead keeps the reader’s attention while he’s setting things up and developing character with plenty of sex, violence, wit and flat out cool stuff. Amongst other things there’s a time-traveling Kraken which has a rather intimate relation with its pilot, pirates as bloodthirsty as you’d hope, a robot mammoth and a culture which worships chance. Well, it’s as reasonable a choice as any god you care to name…

All of this though is merely set dressing for a cast of unpleasant but fascinating characters which is all the stronger for being female dominated. Whilst the whole affair is inaugurated by all round scoundrel and knave Father Christémas (not that one, as he explains) he’s mainly confined to scheming and general unpleasantness a la Noel Coward’s Mr Bridget in ‘The Italian Job’. Similarly his memorably nasty henchperson Haribeaux (not as sweet as his name suggests)  is largely sidelined in coming up with the gruesome but ingenious scheme to steal the ‘2nd Second’. Instead the action is driven by the ex-drug dealing Geordie Chantelle (whose speech is rendered phonetically and is therefore irresistibly reminiscent of numerous ‘Viz’ characters); Sojourner Hooper-Agogo, ex-Faction Paradox agent, President of a futuristic post-human society and owner of said robot mammoth; and Anne Bonny, the eighteenth century pirate with a voracious appetite for sex and violence. All three avoid the easy trap of simply writing ‘strong women’ – these are flawed characters with their own wants, needs and agendas and the level of characterisation here is no mean feat in what’s essentially an action novel.

The whole package is wrapped up in some aptly kinetic prose with a gift for memorable imagery – a giant eye is described as “…like some great, glistening and pendulous bollock” and a space probe nearing a comet is absurdly but beautifully described as  “…a washing machine approaching a mountain.” It ends up as my favourite sort of novel: one which wears its intelligence lightly and has fun with some bold SF ideas rather than seeking to impress the reader. Given the density of ideas and deft way Bidmead unfolds the complex schemes and double and treble crosses of the finale it’s an unusually sure-footed debut and hopefully the start of a long and brilliant career (with some moonlighting in the writer’s room of the WWE chucked in).

‘Faction Paradox: Weapons Grade Snake Oil’ by Blair Bidmead is published by Obverse Books tday (10 January 2017), RRP £19.99. Available now.

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    • 233 pages, 52 chapters. Read it in an afternoon. Impressive stuff, very good story and characterisation, focus on the criminal activities of the Faction. A must read.
      (The only cons for me : there are loads of typo, I hope it’s only in the e-book version and not on the printed material).

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