Prison Planet

Tucson's Zeke Teflon depicts a penal, cult-ridden world that mirrors our own in some ways

In today's corporate-filtered media ecosystem, the possibility of a newly minted popular counterculture sci-fi author is impossible. Tomorrow will offer no Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Pynchon or J.G. Ballard, because the mandarins of art and commerce know better than to permit dissenting voices. Sure, Walmart can sell mass-paperback reprints of Fahrenheit 451—but only because the Digital Age renders moot Ray Bradbury's worry of a world in danger of losing all its books.

No wonder, then, that Zeke Teflon's "novel of utopia and dystopia," Free Radicals, was published by a tiny press with anarchist roots. Despite this, it is among the best future-shock reads in years.

Teflon is a pseudonym for the mysterious local author who dedicates Free Radicals to status-quo-crushing forces like Anonymous, Wikileaks and Occupy. Teflon clearly sympathizes with anarchy-minded persons seeking to undermine institutionalized forces of religion, government and Wall Street. His novel captures these groups' playful yet serious spirit via tonal shifts that work. What starts out a picaresque involving post-apocalyptic Earth-born musician Kel Turner ends as something different—a pulpy, hard-charging, laser-gun-blasting escape from a series of increasingly evil cults. Teflon's genius lies in allowing Turner to evolve from Schlitz-drinking schlub into Skywalker-class savior.

Indeed, Free Radicals opens with the ignoble image of Turner sliding from his couch into a greasy pizza box on his living-room floor. He wakes up to find a cockroach perched on his nose, staring at him. Turner is a classic Don Quixote type, tilting at windmills of political repression and a shitty ultra-feminist ex-wife. He struggles to eke out an existence as a guitarist in grungy clubs where tobacco use is prohibited.

A jilted girlfriend helps land him in the slammer for allegedly engaging in terrorism. The slammer, in this case, is an "extrasolar penal colony," where ideological factions resemble those of Earth—communist leaders exploit workers; Aryan racists take advantage of gullible xenophobes; and an AA-recovery commune on figurative steroids manipulates its members.

In other words, Free Radicals offers a safe way (a fictional forum) for Teflon to mockingly condemn the increasing segmentation of American society into various cults, each with its own wacky agenda, and each with its own inherent system of abuse and prejudice. That the main character finds common ground, and succeeds in busting out, with anarchists is no deus ex machina. For Turner and the author, anarchy provides the only real option to avoid reprogramming or being shuffled off to a communist-created RPF—Re-education Project Force.

Teflon wields a dark sense of humor. But when ideological push comes to physical shove, he's also a terrific depicter of violence, so much so that I suspect the writer possesses a military background (or a vast collection of military sci-fi novels). Here is the protagonist half-heartedly fighting with neo-Nazis against government soldiers; the racists are getting the upper hand with advanced weaponry:

The microwave fryer purred to life, and a dozen Earth-gov troops 20 meters in front of it screamed, their skin bubbling, their eyeballs bursting, as they sank to the earth. Before the fryer could turn toward the troopers on either side of its victims, an infantryman to the left spotted it and sent an RPG round into it, shredding it and sending its crew to the ground screaming, bleeding and dying from shrapnel wounds. Kel breathed deeply, almost hyperventilating, inhaling the stink of cordite, blood, piss and shit—the stench of every battlefield since the employment of gunpowder. But now with another odor thanks to the fryer and the Ciegaderas: burnt meat.

Such moments contrast with the novel's overarching and often crude humor, as when Turner and his Pancho Villa-grade sidekick Chuy perform on a bar stage a jazzy blues number about alien capture called "Abductee Blues."

Comedy aside, Free Radicals is radical in other ways. It's perhaps the first sci-fi story to capture the gritty existence of a futuristic bar musician. (Sorry, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai movie doesn't count.) And it's the only fantasy novel I've read that makes great use of border Spanish; indeed, Radicals includes a glossary of terms.

If we lived in the '60s and '70s—when audience-rattling paperbacks like Naked Lunch were cheap, plentiful and available on pharmacy-spinner racks—critics would hail Free Radicals as a masterpiece. Those days are gone, replaced by piles of Fifty Shades of Grey flying off Target shelves.

The end of America's literary imagination hasn't reached Tucson. I hope readers give Teflon the respect he deserves.

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