In early August 2011, the world almost ended. Or so it seemed from where I was sitting: at home, glued to the news, watching in horror as thousands of people took to rioting in the streets for no reason I could easily see.
Using social media and mobile devices to organise themselves, these individuals made of London a living hell, and various other British cities went down the toilet as well. The gangs took what they wanted from high street retailers—from TVs to trainers—and burned what they didn’t.
Estimates place the cumulative cost of the resulting property damage at approximately two hundred million pounds. But forget the finances: five people died, many others were injured—and that isn’t counting the countless participants who were uncannily quiet about their so-called war wounds.
The forces of law and order did eventually respond. All the police who had planned leaves of absence were told to hold their horses, whilst parliament was (rather pointlessly) recalled. Our poor pillock of a Prime Minister even had to cut short his holidays!
Ultimately, more than three thousand people were arrested in relation to the riots, and gradually, they did die down. But the image of them—the idea of them—still persists. As ‘Limited Edition’ illustrates.
Tim Maughan’s startling short story begins with an extraordinary advert:
Eugene Sureshot, one mile tall, strides through the wasteland. Where his limited edition trainers hit the ground deserts bloom, city blocks rise and mountains rip themselves from the ground. Vistas erupt from each footfall, spreading like bacteria, mingling, creating landscapes. New places from the dead ground. Civilisations rise, intricate detail evolves around the soles of giant feet.
Then Sureshot stops, as if something blocks his path. [He] steps back, raises a foot from the ground—leaving behind light-trails of glass skyscrapers and steel domes, and puts one limited edition kick through the screen, so all that Grids can see is the rubber sole, embossed tick logo.
It’s only a commercial for new shoes, but Grids can’t get it out of his head. By hook or by crook, he resolves, he’ll call a pair of these limited edition kicks his own. Alas, “he’s got no cash. Never has. And down here that makes him irrelevant, an outsider. It makes him insignificant.” So when Grids gets wind of a local store with inventory already, weeks before street date, he and his mans meet in an empty epic fantasy MMO to hatch a plan.
“Standard Smash/Grab rules yeah? No casualties, especially no staff or civilians,” he stresses. Thus the game begins: servers are brought online, admins are installed, and other essential information is seeded, secretly, via >>blinks<< on Twitter.
The progress of Grids and his gang will be followed by a flash mob of interested observers; though an ARG overlaid on their spex, they’ll unlock achievements and score multipliers for achieving certain objectives. Their success will essentially earn them significance. Their failure? Infamy. It’s a win-win situation... but of course it gets out of hand quickly.
‘Limited Edition’ is a chilling take on the reign of organised anarchy in the UK discussed above, and as such, its contemporary relevance is second to none—certainly to none of the BSFA’s other nominees for the Best Short Story of 2012. It touches, too, on the potential consequences of targeted marketing; on the place of gaming in our era; and on the immeasurable impact social media has had on society. As an extrapolation of recent events and advances, ‘Limited Edition’ is as astonishing as it is alarming.
But beyond its bearing on tomorrow’s world—nay today’s—Tim Maughan’s cautionary tale of the dispossessed in Britain’s cities also functions on a number of other fronts. In particularly fantastic in terms of character; somehow, despite what they’re doing, Grids and his fam seem sympathetic. On one level I honestly wanted them to get away with their Smash/Grab!
Then I remembered myself...
There is, then, a sense of tension between what is right outside the story, and what is true within its narrow, claustrophobic confines. In addition to this, ‘Limited Edition’ is propelled by an exponentially more desperate momentum, and bolstered by some very fitting imagery, which has nature resembling artifice rather than the other way around:
When Grids and his crew get to Avonmeads, he sees they’re being eyeballed by a fat black crow, perched on top of a CCTV pole. Like the camera it watches them pass. [...] He feels knots in his stomach, that feeling of being out of his comfort zone, of being watched and pointed out as an outsider.
‘Limited Edition’ may be a cutting commentary on any number of contemporary topics, but it’s also a damn fine short story—one of the most potent I've read in recent years—with candid characters, powerful pacing, and a terrific yet terrifying perspective.
To wit, Tim Maughan’s latest tale is well and truly deserving of its spot on the BSFA’s shortlist—as was ‘Havana Augmented’ (now available as one third of Paintwork) when it was nominated two years ago—though I wonder whether or not the same can be said of our next contender.