“If life was a thing that money could buy, the rich would live and the poor would die.” So reads the proverb on the back of John H. Sibley, Jr.’s novel “Bodyslick,” set in a dystopian futuristic Chicago where the main character makes a good living selling organs on the black market. Malcolm “Bodyslick” Steel grew up in a public housing project, his father killed in the Iraq War and his mother addicted to crack. In 2031, he lives in a Hyde Park condo with a lake view; procuring healthy organs for the rich, sick, and desperate has provided him with a steady flow of cash and adventure.
Sibley writes about Chicago’s seedy underbelly partly from experience–in the preface to his book, he describes his “unconventional and often violent life.” Sibley was homeless on the streets of Chicago for four months in the late ’80s. Afterwards, he managed to matriculate at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, graduating with a BFA in 1994. He began work on “Bodyslick” soon after starting life as a struggling artist on the West Side. In 2005, Sibley’s manuscript was accepted by Kensington Books, the largest independent publisher in America. Kensington is co-publishing the book, set for release on June 24, with Vibe magazine under their Street Lit imprint.
“Bodyslick” is set in a vividly detailed and wildly chaotic version of modern-day Chicago, where Maglev trains have replaced the El and the Near North Side has become a countercultural haven for street entertainers and drug dealers. Even the drugs have changed with time: the most popular varieties in 2031 come from Mars. Genetic engineering has produced a variety of half-human hybrids such as humanzees and pigmanoids, not to mention two-headed guard dogs and cyborbots. During the course of the book, Dr. Graham, a neurosurgeon at the University of Chicago Hospitals, performs the first successful cephalic transplant–in other words, a head transplant.
Despite all these futuristic flourishes, the book grapples with real–and contemporary–problems. “I’m trying to create a whole new genre: urban science fiction,” explains Sibley. This “urban science fiction” includes space ships and lasers, but ties in environmentalism, racism, genetic engineering, global warming, and bioethics, often by extrapolating modern trends to an extreme outcome. For example, the second chapter concerns a mother who won’t let her children outside to play because of the danger from the sun’s rays. Their friends come calling covered in a substance called melanhue, which supposedly renders them immune to the ultraviolet light, but the mother is right to keep her children indoors: moments after turning their friends away, she finds a cancerous lump on her daughter’s throat.
“Bodyslick” ventures into political territory at times, particularly with a subplot concerning Darold Mannington, a fictional black mayor of Chicago who dies near the beginning of the book. Although the official explanation blames his death on a heart attack resulting from obesity, it is suggested that he may have been poisoned. It is difficult to miss the reference to Mayor Harold Washington, whose death of a heart attack was followed by rumors of foul play. One of the book’s most prominent themes is race relations, but Sibley refuses to be pigeonholed as a black science fiction author, insisting that “this is not a black book, it’s a universal book. It’s an American book.” He cites as literary influences everyone from Richard Wright to Philip K. Dick to Jean-Paul Sartre.
Although he throws around a fair number of scientific terms, Sibley has no scientific background outside of an anatomy class and a scientific drafting class he took at the School of the Art Institute. “It took a ton of research to give [the book] authenticity,” he explains. Sibley’s other career, as an artist, shows through much more clearly; the book includes 52 black-and-white illustrations he drew, mostly character portraits. “That was my trump card, that I was an artist and an author,” he reflects, his confidence showing through. Sibley hopes to sell 100,000 copies of the book in and around Chicago, making it possible for him to quit his day job and focus on writing and making art full-time. He has already written the first three chapters of the sequel, “Bodyslick and Angola Galactic Prison,” and has a title for the third installment in the trilogy: “Bodyslick Marooned.” Although 100,000 is an ambitious goal for a first novel, Sibley believes “Bodyslick” will “grab public attention” among readers, especially Chicagoans. “It’s an Indiana Jones-type experience,” he laughs. “You come with me, it’ll be a real thrill ride.”