Neal Barrett, Jr.'s Prince of Christler-Coke is, as often happens with Barrett's work, somewhat difficult to categorize. Let's start with "good story" as a category then move to "satire," "humor," "magical realism," and maybe even "science fiction fairy tale" (if such a compartmentalization exists).
One description leapt immediately to mind after getting only a little way into this short novel — "post-apocalyptic Gulliver'sTravels." Barrett's satire is sometimes scathing, sometimes a gentle thumb of the nose, and sometimes a rapier thrust plunged into the heart of government or religion or racism or corporate greed. But it is unequivocal that Barrett, like Swift, does not suffer fools gladly. Swift said his chief aim was to "vex the world"; readers of Christler-Coke will recognize that Barrett revels in doing the same.
In this novel (part of which appeared earlier in different form within Slightly Off Center, a Barrett short story collection), the United States exists as primarily a right-coast/left-coast dichotomy with a pathetic, dangerous, destitute no-man's land separating the two. American society has devolved after a nuclear apocalypse into rule by corporate states, and protagonist Asel Iacola, the Prince of Christler-Coke, lives the life of a pampered-silly corporate aristocrat, replete with servants to feed and scratch him and generally insulate him from labor of any kind. The primary occupation to which he will ascend is conniving to prevent incursions into Christler-Coke territory by other family corporations. Barrett effectively taps a rich vein when he skewers corporate America, satirizing with a statement by Asel's nemesis what Enron executives all too clearly demonstrated: "Greed is the creed."
The story opens at Asel's wedding, where his marriage will cement a deal to ensure Christler-Coke's continued ascendancy while short-circuiting the scheming of Disney-Dow. DD's Machiavellian finesse, however, outdoes CC's, and Asel finds himself in an Oklahoma prison populated by other fallen corporate prissies. He is befriended there by Sylvan McCree, a former corporate puff and a black man, something of which Asel has seen little. The friendship offers Barrett multiple chances to fling barbs at the institution of racism.
The pair suffer a series of encounters as they escape from the prison, escape from a band of vigilante human rust buckets (humans with varying parts of their anatomy replaced as needed by whatever mechanical contraptions can be scrounged), escape from a band of starved-into-insanity cannibals living in potholes in the deserts of mid-America no-man's land, escape from pulchritudinous nuns (nones) who have tricked them into drug-induced slavery as gardeners, then go their separate ways only to reunite for the final show-down with the evil Disney-Dow. Along the way, Asel learns something about being human, experiencing love, and viewing other humans through a lens other than corporate entitlement. He also learns a lot about himself.
This is a coming-of-age story of a corporate dilettante who ultimately learns to view the other 99% of humanity as human and not as "afterthought" Barrett has spun a tale in which one human (Asel) gains enough wisdom to understand that humans born under circumstances different from his own are not other. In the midst of this, however, the point is made that not everyone will take on such a magnanimous view of the world, and that there will always be those who want an other to exist in order to grant to themselves superiority and the spoils that, in their own minds, should logically follow. Moving from such a viewpoint to one in which the former other is understood as human is what forms the backbone of Barrett's narrative.
Christler-Coke is similar in some ways to Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court — both are written by humorists-satirists who toy with SF tropes as part of their storytelling. Swift's Gulliver's Travels also fits this mold. Indeed, Paul Alkon, author of The Origins of Futuristic Fiction and Science Fiction Before 1900, names the imaginary voyage, utopia/anti-utopia, and satire on society as common elements distinguishing the forerunners of SF. Barrett continues that tradition. Perhaps a fruitful line of inquiry would be to search for the parallels among Swift, Twain, and Barrett as fantasy humorists who, in some of their work, create science fictional settings to satirize human institutions and the human condition.
Barrett says that humor is his favorite way to tell a story. He is good at it and demonstrates the requisite skill in the use of language that such writers must possess, having fun with spellings, synecdoches, and neologisms, but doing so with a purpose — to set a tone about the vacuous existence to which American institutions have devolved. He has been masterful in his use of the language in much of his work, and this novel succeeds at that level. Readers will go through an adjustment period at the start of the book but will quickly fall into the rhythm of the language and the unique approach to the satire it evokes.
Barrett has done other post-apocalypse Americas (e.g., Through Darkest America and Dawn's Uncertain Light, though these were decidedly not humorist works) and other protagonist self-discovery narratives (like The Hereafter Gang, which Barrett has called his best work). Off-center characters and slightly bent viewpoints are Barrett's stock in trade, whether here with Asel in Christler-Coke or in his Wiley Moss mysteries like Skinny Annie Blues or his delightful short story tellings like Deviations with lead character Jake who shares some similarities with Hereafter's protagonist. Though perhaps a cop-out when positioning any Barrett piece within his body of work, it is nonetheless true that Barrett's eclecticism makes it hard to sub-categorize individual works within his output.
Cautionary tales abound in SF. A successful humorist's treatment, however, is far less common. The sublime and the ridiculous magically co-exist within Prince of Christler-Coke in a weird symbiosis that prompts the reader to consider how we all might avoid the dark side that may lie in our futures and on the other side of Neal Barrett, Jr.'s wit.
— Jeff King, SFRA Review #271, January/February/March 2005