A few days before I wrote this review, I happened to discover an utterly amazing second-hand bookshop in Petersfield – with a horror/sci-fi/fantasy section crammed with old books from the 1980s/90s 🙂
Anyway, although most of the books I bought were alternate editions etc.. of books I’ve read before, one of the other novels that caught my eye was Peter Beere’s 1984 novel “Urban Prey”. What can I say? The cover art looked like a cross between “Blade Runner” and an Iron Maiden album cover 🙂
Interestingly, this book is the first novel in a trilogy. Even so, this novel can pretty much be enjoyed on it’s own (although I’ll talk more about the ending in the later parts of this review).
So, let’s take a look at “Urban Prey”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.
Set in London in the dystopian future of 2020, the story focuses on a man called B.K.Howard (or “Beekay”). Beekay is having a terrible week. Short on cash, he agrees to help his uncle out with a trip to Essex to pick up some smuggled goods arriving from the war-torn mess of mainland Europe. Unfortunately, the plod catch on and send a heavily-armed squad of riot-armoured auxiliaries to the port. Beekay barely escapes the grisly carnage that follows.
When he finally limps back to his run-down flat, there is a letter waiting for him. Call-up papers! As part of the ultra-conservative government’s drive to get the unemployment numbers down, those on long-term benefits are conscripted into the military and sent on a one-way trip to the worst battlefields the world has to offer. After Beekay goes to his aunt to inform her of his uncle’s death, he visits his long-term girlfriend and, after learning something about her, breaks up with her.
Miserable and drunk, Beekay tries to find a way to dodge the draft. But, the bank won’t let him withdraw any money from his account. Not only that, after deciding to make up with his girlfriend several days later, he finds out that she’s been arrested after stabbing a member of the city’s dystopian police after being threatened by him. When Beekay gets home, two men are waiting for him. They are terrorists who will help him and his girlfriend get out of the country if Beekay carries out an assassination for them.
Since the target is the policeman who threatened his girlfriend, Beekay agrees. But, whilst hiding out and planning the crime, he gets a threatening note from a man called Homer. Homer is an official “hunter” who tracks down draft dodgers….
One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, although it shares some very vague thematic similarities with “Blade Runner”, it is much more of a dystopian crime thriller than a sci-fi story. It is more like the gritty “it could happen!” dystopian classics like “V For Vendetta” and “Nineteen Eighty-Four” than anything else. Still, it’s a surprisingly compelling and atmospheric thriller.
Although the novel’s thriller elements are at their absolute best during the nail-bitingly suspenseful conclusion, there is a palpable feeling of suspense and danger throughout the novel. Beekay is living in a hostile, grim world that is indifferent to him at best.
In addition to the morbid fascination of watching Beekay get dragged into a life of crime, the relatively few scenes involving Homer chasing Beekay help to add extra suspense to the novel (and are a bit like “Blade Runner” in some respects). Likewise, the novel’s grisly and unglamourous portrayal of violence is similar to both “Blade Runner” and the splatterpunk horror fiction of the 1980s too.
The novel’s dystopian elements are a mixture of some classic dystopian stuff (eg: an endless war abroad, violent policemen, forced labour in prisons etc..) and a scathing satire of 1980s Britain. This gives the novel a feeling of gritty realism that you wouldn’t find in more stylised dystopian fiction. In the novel’s version of 2020, there is little to no advanced technology – just poverty, urban decay and an indifferent authoritarian regime. In other words, this novel is a satire of Margaret Thatcher’s time in government.
However, the novel’s dystopian elements do sometimes feel a little bit overdone – to the point where they almost stray into the realm of unintentional parody/dark comedy. I mean, if you’ve ever played dystopian comedy games like “Beneath A Steel Sky” or “Normality“, if you’ve read the hilariously earnest 1980s anarchist parody of “Tintin” or watched an old sitcom called “The Young Ones“, then the tone of parts of this novel will probably feel amusingly familiar.
In terms of the characters, they’re ok. Most of the novel’s characterisation focuses on Beekay – who is a self-pitying, unlucky, poor and nervous “underdog” character. He’s also a somewhat morally-ambiguous character (leaving aside his criminal activities, he’s also hypocritical and prejudiced at times) who seems like a product of the grim world that he has grown up in. Although the other main characters have just enough characterisation to make you care about what happens them, don’t expect lots of in-depth characterisation.
In terms of the writing, it’s interesting. The novel is narrated from Beekay’s perspective and the first-person narration is this weird mixture of informal narration and slightly more formal/descriptive narration. It fits well with Beekay’s character and helps to immerse the reader, but it is the kind of narration that will probably be a little bit annoying before you get used to it.
In terms of length and pacing, this novel is really good. At an efficient 198 pages in length, this novel is just the right length for the story it is telling. Likewise, the novel’s pacing is a fairly good mixture of moderately-paced segments that build atmosphere (and show the grinding boredom/grimness of Beekay’s life) and some surprisingly gripping and suspenseful fast-paced segments. Seriously, the later parts of this novel are real edge-of-your-seat stuff!
Plus, although there is room for a sequel at the end of the story, there is enough resolution to the main plot for the ending not to feel like too much of a cliffhanger. Even so, it is at least a mild-moderate cliffhanger in some regards.
In terms of how this thirty-five year old novel has aged, it hasn’t aged well. In addition to the fact that the dystopian future of 2020 looks almost exactly like an exaggerated version of 1980s Britain, this is also a novel where the main character holds a few prejudiced attitudes and/or uses some fairly “politically incorrect” language. Still, despite this, the underlying story of the novel is still surprisingly compelling, suspenseful and atmospheric.
All in all, if you want a cheesy 1980s dystopian thriller, then it might be worth taking a look at this novel. Although it isn’t perfect, some parts of it are really gripping and it has a wonderfully gloomy and grim atmosphere that will make the dystopian present of 2019 look positively cheerful by comparison. But, despite the cover art, don’t go into this novel expecting it to be like “Blade Runner”. It’s more “punk” than “cyberpunk”.
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it might just get a four.