This caustic collection of ten satirical stories certainly sticks the knife into some of the less appealing characteristics of modern-day American (and European) social behaviour. Author Dale Bridges deftly employs the time-honoured device of isolating a single theme or talking point, and exaggerating it to extremes in a near-future alternate reality. He’s created a collection of different dystopian possibilities which veer between the appallingly possible and the outright ridiculous, punctuated with occasionally bitter wit and characterised by his pithy use of snappy language.
Justice, Inc evokes amusement, outrage and some sadness at the depressing accuracy of Bridges’ observations – but there’s also an undercurrent of jaded optimism, too. Several of the longer stories include characters who don’t behave entirely awfully, who can recognise the right thing when it slaps them around the face, and the title story itself offers an unusual perspective for personal redemption.
The whole collection won’t take too long to devour, but it offers plenty of food for thought. It’s probably best read in separate sessions to allow each story to sink in, rather than rushing through in one great big gulp which would diminish the impact of each individual narrative. Threads from one tale turn up in another – look out for the creeping influence of Omni-Mart which extends like an insidious fungal mycelia into every aspect of a future American society that has totally sold out to big business.
A couple of the offerings are extremely short; a single page of flash fiction. ‘Texting the Apocalypse’ is sharply observed and skilfully rendered and doesn’t over-use what would become a tiresome device if it went on any longer. ‘The Villain’ is another rapid read… and one with far more depth and insight than its word count would suggest. How do you define the difference between good and bad? Could it come down to one single split-instance decision? And why would anyone want to be Robin when they could be the Batguy?
In ‘Life After Men’ you can almost see how a late-night semi-drunken debate with a good female friend evolved into an original explanation for the rise of a future zombie apocalypse.
BFF: ‘why is it that every nice guy I date turns into a total freak after six months or so?’
Dale: ‘Say! Maybe it’s something to do with you…’
Not all of the stories can plough an entirely original furrow. ‘The Girlfriend’ features a geek who chooses the company of an android sex slave instead of forming one of those tricky proper relationships with an actual human person, and inevitably things go badly wrong. Echoes of Pris, the near-perfect Nexus-6, abound together with all the moral dilemmas she raised.
A couple of the themes overlap, too; ‘The Generation Gap’ and ‘The Time Warp Café’ both tackle a future in which the older generation need to get with the programme or remove themselves from the game. However, despite the blurring theme, each tale tackles the subject from a different angle and the result is two very different presentations – both capable of provoking wry amusement.
My only real criticism of Justice, Inc is that it could have ended on a stronger note: ‘Soul Man’ lands several well-aimed punches on the easy target of babbling sports commentators, and it acts as a conclusion for the collection. It hammers home the message about corporate monsters subsuming personal freedoms (in this case they’ve patented the gene for the soul), and neatly counterbalances the intro in which the divine creator views human exploits as nothing more than cable-TV entertainment. However, it wasn’t the strongest story in the bunch, nor the most memorable. Several of the other stories had me snorting and chortling out loud: this one was almost too sad for a finale. I’d’ve gone for something more snarky to finish on.
Some people will find the language and subject of Justice Inc objectionable, impenetrable or just plain offensive. There are certainly moments where it appears Bridges is being an A1 smart-arse simply because he can – and that’s part of the delight of this anthology. Bridges plainly has a lot to say and he delights in warping wordplay to get his message across. This can be entertaining, outrageous, irritating or disconcerting, but mainly it’s a real treat to observe a talented wordsmith flexing his aptitude and not being scared to experiment.
In these short stories, Bridges conveys a depth of perception, social commentary and characterisation which many well-known authors fail to achieve in full-length novels. It’d be fascinating to see what he could do with 100,000 words to wrangle.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
Justice Inc is available as an ebook at Amazon