by Michael Martineck
You can see the influence of authors such as Ray Bradbury and George Orwell on a work like The Milkman, but I suppose most science fiction can probably trace back to both of these authors. (Speaking with Martineck at this year’s When Words Collide, he mentioned the influences of Philip K. Dick on the work as well. When reflecting further on it, however, I think it would need a great deal more surrealism to resemble anything I’m familiar with by that author. Of course, we do follow an investigator through most of the story, but I’d go so far to say that McCallum is more Montag than Deckard.) The big problem comes when an author basically apes the greats without adding anything of his own but, luckily, Martineck runs with the themes he appropriates from stories such as Fahrenheit 451 and 1984, creating a story all his own.
In a future where government assets were all slowly purchased by a few large corporations, nations are no more, but everything comes down to the bottom line, including human life. When a young woman is murdered, Edwin McCallum is given a small budget to investigate the crime based on her projected worth to the company. In doing so, he finds himself entangled in the mystery surrounding the Milkman––an individual who posts purity tests of milk from different sources without permission from any of the companies––and questioning the morality of the world he lives in.
In my original draft of this review, I made a few vague suggestions as to what I liked and disliked with the story, packing it up and calling it a day, but I felt dissatisfied when I “finished.” Hearing Martineck talk on various topics made me remember how much I respect him as an author; I know he deserves better than that, so I’ll try a bit harder to at least be less evasive about my opinions in the matter.
The Milkman was a story that I liked, but didn’t love, and I’m pretty sure I can at least identify a few of the problems I had. I struggled to accept various details of the story, including the central concept. Even though I can see pushes in the direction of governments selling off assets to various companies and the heightened influence of powerful corporations on all stripes of politician as we move forward, it’s hard for me to make the jump to the dissolution of nations and the complete disregard for human life, even if only superficially to try and convince people that the corporations aren’t heartless. Of course, if this proves to be a complete deal-breaker from the get-go, there’s no point in reading further; I understood that I had to take this to be true in order to give Martineck’s narrative a chance, so I didn’t dwell on it. However, other plot points came up that I had similar difficulties with as I continued reading. (The clearest that comes to mind now is that the Milkman got away with publishing his reports online for such a long time without being detected. While I can believe that there are reasonable explanations for this, such as people in powerful positions actually knowing of the activities, but either ignoring him or allowing the reports to continue for strategic reasons, I found it odd that he both seemed difficult to locate with significant company resources behind the search efforts and that none of the characters considered this issue, at least that I can recall. I would have loved to see some sort of low-tech distribution strategy to get around the electronic tracking methods all the companies would most certainly have at their disposal, like getting an old printing press and passing paper reports through the community, but I suppose that’s neither here nor there.)
While The Milkman consists of multiple, interweaving story arcs that focus on several characters, I probably focused on McCallum in my synopsis as his was the most compelling to me, partly because I liked his character the best, but also because he was the only one to show a very clear and significant growth. And this isn’t to say that every character needs go through a profound change for me to appreciate a story, but I likely would have appreciated the other major characters more if they were either given similar treatment to the investigator. (Or, you know, we could have just focused more on his side of the plot.) And, truth be told, McCallum’s plot moved forward at a good clip and kept me interested throughout. (I will admit that I wasn’t happy to see some loose ends that come near the end of it; upon finishing it originally, the epilogue seemed to hint at a jumping off point for a sequel. Re-reading it quickly, however, it may just be something of a non-traditional ending that looks to make some sense of certain events without tying things up too nicely, so perhaps it was just my expectations talking.)
Looking back now, most of my complaints are largely subjective in nature, so don’t let them turn you off Martineck’s story. When everything comes together, The Milkman is still well-paced and interesting throughout.