Book Reviews, Novels, Short Stories

Cyberpunk Roots: S.P. Somtow’s Mallworld (1981)

Mallworld is a brilliant playground for stories. Between 1979 and ’81, S.P. Somtow published a slew of seven stories set in the titular Malllworld, a mall 30 kilometers long situated near Jupiter,  floating in the void. Somtow’s vision of consumerism gone amok was simultaneously ahead of its time and forgettable. His ideas helped lay the groundwork for what would become cyberpunk (and the Mall of America): A grimy marriage of technology and class division, with extensive corporate intrigue and rebellious no-care attitude.

Mallworld’s a wonderful place, and the best moments of  these stories revel in the mall’s consumerism, but many Mallworld stories are also mired in dated stereotypes and sloppy writing desperately in need of an editor. Somtow — then writing under the name Somtow Sucharitkul — moved on from Mallworld in ’81 and continued to develop his writing with quirky sci-fi, fantasy, and horror fiction alongside a music career, but most of his work is either self-published or out-of-print today.*

The lore of Mallworld poses a far-future where the Selespridar — tall, blue humanoids with purple hair akin to dreadlocks and who emit a pheromone to drive us humans into a sexual frenzy — have caged the human race, effecting an opaque shield just beyond the orbit of Saturn. Humanity, then, has lost access to the stars, until such a time as they prove themselves socially advanced enough to the Selespridar.

The first three stories — ‘A Day in Mallworld,’ ‘Rabid in Mallworld,’ and ‘Sing a Song for Mallworld’ — were published under the name Somtow Sucharitkul in these three issues of Asimov’s Science Fiction between 1979 and 1980.

The Selespridar themselves are ridiculous, and the hammiest part of the stories. Most of their powers are more magic than sci-fi, and their alien sense of ethics is mindnumbingly backwards even by human standards. Not all of the nine stories deal with the Selespridar, thankfully, but those that do are the weakest links — a distinctly-’70s creation that I suspect has hurt Mallworld‘s legacy.

On the other hand, the stories that focus on the corporate worship of Mallworld and the grimy underworld in the mall’s forgotten corners offer endlessly creative and addictive. The Way Out Corp., a company that has bankrolled suicide into both a product and entertainment; Storkways Inc., which controls the market on genetically-modified children and has made natural births unfashionable; Copuland, a theme park-cum-brothel that works hand-in-hand with the Way Out Corp.; the Churches of Colonel Sanders, St. Martin Luther King, Jr., and St. Indiana Jones, which need no further explanation

Cover for the 1984 edition under the name Somtow Sucharitkul. While sporting awesome cover art, this edition didn’t feature any of Kofoed’s artwork from the Asimov’s SF.

The earliest stories and the opening frame narrative — added, I believe, to the 2000 edition — are the weakest points, focusing on the Selespridar over the mall itself. The frame narrative loosely ties the nine short stories together and is written as half the conversation between two Selespridar discussing the future of humanity. It’s bad, and adds nothing to the stories themselves. In only four pages, it features plot holes and the worst aspects of the magical aliens, who joke and jab about how dumb humanity is while saying plenty of dumb things. The nine stories are meant to be these Selespridar reading nine minds within Mallworld itself, picked at random, but, given inherent temporal issues of many stories told over many years, some even including these two peeping-tom aliens, this hardly makes sense. Either skip it, or read knowing it gets better.

The first two stories — also among the first published — are serviceable prototypes for Mallworld. ‘A Day in Mallworld’ (1979) and ‘Sing a Song of Mallworld’ (1980) offer fascinating glimpses of colorful consumerism, but they’re mostly buried under Selespridar lore — boring — or shallow characterization. The former is a tale of a Bible Belt runaway landing on Mallworld for the first time. She immediately meets a Selespridar who’s wandering among humans looking for the meaning of life. They wander the variety of churches representing the future of religion until finally realizing that books providing life with meaning. It’s a dated and, IMO, cynical message swamped in naivete about technology.

The latter is more interesting, but signals a serious issue with this series’ male narrators: They’re misogynistic twerps who fall in love on sight and demand that  women sleep with them. Their demand for sex often drives the plot, which makes these nothing but shallow boys’ stories. The narrator here is our introduction to the barJulians, a wealthy family that built Mallworld generations ago, and have amassed most of human wealth to splurge on whatever they desire. A bored 17-year-old virtuoso,  this barJulian wanders Mallworld looking for distractions from his musical career, and stumbles upon a cult of children living in the skin of Mallworld. Instead of diving into this cult, his story is about ‘rescuing’ one of its members so she’ll sleep with him. Not cool. On the other hand, also featured is a life-sized game of pinball. Cool. (Anything that reminds me of one of the best Are You Afraid of the Dark? episodes is most certainly Cool.)

S.P. Somtow primarily works as a composer of opera music, and currently resides in Thailand. Check out his work here.

The third story in the collection, ‘the Vampire of Mallworld,’ really picks up the pace and shows the possibilities of this world by casually introducing vampires into this space-faring mall without batting an eye. A TV producer and actor working on his own reality TV show — long before reality TV — about Mallworld’s darkest secrets finds the ultimate secret: An underground suicide parlor where guests watch volunteers get slaughtered by a starving vampire. Introducing a network of barJulian family secrets, corporations selling suicide, baby wholesalers embroiled in corporate conspiracies, talking TV cameras full of snarky backtalk, and, of course, vampires, it’s easy to see the seeds that would eventually flower into cyberpunk here. ‘The Vampire of Mallworld’ is best described on simple terms: Batshit crazy.

‘The Vampire of Mallworld’ is one of the most mature stories in the collection, and one of the last published — but, unusually, it was written not long after ‘a Day in Mallworld’ in the ’70s. In an e-mail exchange with the author, Somtow described this story being rejected as too twisted for the target audience. This early rejection led to subsequent Mallworld stories carrying a lighter, goofier tone — at least until the series was popular enough to sneak in darker elements again.

The following story, ‘Rabid in Mallworld,’ is another early outing, most similar to ‘a Day in Mallworld.’ ‘Rabid’ expands on the Selespridar lore, showing the stages of their multi-century life cycles. It’s not a bad story, but memorable it ain’t, and the family drama that’s meant to be at the forefront is lost behind a bulwark of sci-fi gobbledygook.

Coolest cover art ever.
Cover for Somtow’s first novel, Starship & Haiku (1981). Spotting this bizarre title and cover art in a used bookshop led me to Mallworld and the rest of Somtow’s work.

The longest story, ‘Mallworld Graffiti,’ is two stories fitted together. A reprisal of the misogyny from ‘Sing a Song’ fills up the first half, and a page-turner about social justice and dystopian realities next door the latter half. An artist tries to win the heart of a barJulian by sculpting her likeness in a massive fixture of ice orbiting Jupiter — he obsesses about her, about how much he deserves her, about how much he wants to show the world by sleeping with her. Then the narrative shifts, and instead he’s atoning and miserable, spending his days helping those in need at the mall’s ‘Graffiti,’ which is a massive collection of public messages and cries for help. Eventually another Mallworld is seen next door via a rip in reality, and he meets another him trying to escape the oppression of their world’s Selespridar overlords. If this sounds completely irrelevant to the ice sculpture, tail-chasing escapades, that’s because it is. It’s also much better.

‘The Darkside of Mallworld’ is another highlight, and another precursor to the cyberpunk movement. We follow a repo agent working for Storkways Inc., hunting down and stealing children whose parents fail to pay their monthly dues. Repossessed children are taken to used kid lots and sold to whoever’s willing to pay. This amazing scenario leads into another: Our repo’d kid escapes and we chase her into Mallworld’s darkside — floors where stores couldn’t pay their rent, long abandoned by commerce and left to slowly rot. Mallworld’s darkest corners are now ruled by competing gangs torn from butchered mythology. It’s the Mallkyries at war with the Amazons. The Mallkyries seek an honorable death in order to make it to Mallhalla, an afterworld where they can purchase all the coprokinetic sculptures their souls could want.

‘The Jaws of Mallworld’ was the original closer for the 1981 and 1984 editions of Mallworld, and it’s a weird one. The title is a reference to Stephen Spielberg’s Jaws, as a portal between the Atlantic Ocean and the floor of Copuland releases endless torrents of salt water and sea critters into Mallworld. A man-eating shark moves in, and Copuland shifts from selling sex with ‘porcupines’ — modified people with 30 or more sets of genitalia — to selling death in the jaws of the visiting shark.

The three Mallworld tales published in 1981 — ‘Vampire in Mallworld,’ ‘Mallworld Graffiti,’ and ‘the Darkside of Mallworld’ — were first printed in these issues of Amazing SF Stories and Asimov’s SF.’The Jaws of Mallworld’ debuted in the 1981 novel version of Mallworld.

With the 2000 and 2013 reprints of Mallworld, Somtow wrote two new stories set in the universe: ‘A Mall and the Gneiss Visitors’ and ‘Bug-Eyed in Mallworld.’ They’re both among the series’ best stories, and show a lot of growth in Somtow’s writing. The Pope and the bug-eyed barJulian aren’t shallow wells of sexual desires like earlier protagonists, but complex observers with developed goals.

Geology is alive in the ‘Gneiss’ story, and are visiting our solar system in order to rescue long-lost family from human abuse. The Black Stone of Kaaba arrived centuries earlier, and hides in plain sight, waiting for a chance to escape. Without rescue soon, it’s feared, the Black Stone will die alone and turn into what we think of as a normal rock. A future Pope narrates this story, a woman who was genetically-engineered to be the Pope: She’s a figurehead who stands naked and pure in a world where Catholicism has bought out and merged with Hinduism, and where Jesus returned in the 21st century to combat Mormonism. She travels with the geologic visitors to help return their lost family.

The 2000 reprint of Mallworld, also out of print, introduced ‘a Mall and the Gneiss Visitors’ and ‘Bug-Eyed in Mallworld.’

‘Bug-Eyed’ tells of a corporate takeover, of an elaborate ruse set off by smarter species — cetaceans and the Selespridar. Curly the whale gives our narrating barJulian the keys to the shield enclosing our solar system around Saturn’s orbit, and shortly after Mallworld’s suffered a corporate takeover. His credentials barred from traveling within Mallworld, he buys a new body — that of an ancient race of giant insects that doubled, we mythologize, as detectives. Born anew as a giant preying mantis in an overcoat, our barJulian travels to a new department store literally devouring all of Mallworld with promises of savings and sales. He has to choose between saving himself and all of humankind.

These two stories seem immediately more complex than the older ones, and, along with ‘Vampire’ and ‘Darkside,’ are the most fun to read.

The closing of the frame narrative is about as dumb as its opening, unfortunately.

Mallworld‘s stories all exude charm and creativity like no other, but it’s impossible to say most of them are actually any good. Characters are two-dimensional stereotypes, and plotlines are as self-involved and shallow as the concept of Mallworld demands. Stories like ‘a Day in Mallworld’ and ‘Sing a Song for Mallworld’ are dated slogs, but ‘the Darkside of Mallworld’ and ‘the Vampire of Mallworld’ are classic, goofy tales of cyberpunk — required reading for fans of the genre.

Somtow’s stories are worthwhile for sheer creativity, and the writing comes second. Even when they fall flat, Mallworld gets by on sheer coolness. Given the growth in Somtow’s writing between the 1979 and 2000 stories, I hope he returns to Mallworld once again: A new collection or a novel devoted to the best parts of Mallworld — its dark underbelly, the corporate intrigue, and other human elements — could kick a little life into cyberpunk and open lots of younger readers to this forgotten gem of the genre.


EDIT: S.P. Somtow is now returning to many of his cult classic sci-fi and fantasy worlds — including Mallworld! He’s on Patreon and his writing can be supported for pennies. Go here and show your love!

* Mallworld itself was republished as an ultimate edition in 2000, with two brand-new stories added to the original seven. This edition also quickly went out of print, and in 2013 a new ‘Ultimate, Ultimate, Ultimate’ edition was published with the original artwork from Karl Kofoed† added once again.

† Googling Karl Kofoed led to some surprises. His artwork has a small cult following, small enough that arrests of him and his wife in 2011 for child pornography make no mention of his art background. Wow.

2 thoughts on “Cyberpunk Roots: S.P. Somtow’s Mallworld (1981)”

    1. “Vaguely good” doesn’t really surprise me for S&H. The setup sounds fun, but his early Mallworld stories written in the same time were the same: Vaguely good. The writing was clunky as hell in the early stories, and solid in the newest.

      Somtow is writing again, and recently re-released most of his books as ebooks — tho poorly-scanned ebooks that need a lot of formatting love. I’m excited to see what he’s producing now, but also need to catch up on a few others: Vampire Junction, the Inquestor novels.


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