Author John Sibley Jr.-like the protagonist in his first novel BodySlick-has managed to overcome early personal hardships with a keen sense of survival.
Born in the LeClaire Courts projects on the south West Side of Chicago, Sibley grew up in a working-class, two-parent home. He was also introduced to the arts by his parents, which inspired him to become an artist himself.
He eventually penned his first book BodySlick, a fictional Sci-fi thriller set in the future but with moral questions faced in today’s society. Sibley spent years working on the book, which hit stores last week.
What led to its creation is as harrowing a personal story as the book’s fictional tale.
BodySlick tells the story of Malcolm Steel, a.k.a. BodySlick. He’s a futuristic hustler circa 2031 Chicago, who sells human organs to wealthy Chicago businessmen in need of transplants on the black market.
The book obviously isn’t autobiographical, but Sibley has faced his own moral dilemmas in his life.
Sibley’s family lived modestly. His dad worked in manufacturing while his mother was a homemaker. Sibley’s father encouraged him to pursue his interest in the arts.
“My father was an excellent pianist who played when I was younger and wanted me to explore my interest in art,” he recalled.
Sibley did pursue an art career following a four-year stint in the U. S. Air Force in Thailand and Korea in 1972.
After he returned from service, he began distributing his art at galleries, but hardly made any money. It was tough making a name for himself, Sibley recalled.
“I think I was trying to prove to everyone that I could succeed as an artist,” he said. “However, it took a strain on my [first] marriage because money was always so tight, but I honestly wanted to commit myself to my art full-time. But it just got worst over time.”
Sibley’s marriage did eventually break up. Shortly after his wife left, he experienced the darkest period of his life, spending four months homeless.
“It was a truly existential experience,” said Sibley, who recovered after landing with a decibel-level testing company, where he would work for more than 20 years.
“It completely changed my way of looking at the world for the better,” he said.
Sibley continued as an artist, even studying the field at Kennedy-King College and then the Art Institute of Chicago in 1994. He later remarried and continued to sell his art on the West Side. He also began to work on the manuscript for the book.
Sibley’s draft was given the green light by Kingston Books in 2005. The 352-page paperback was released on June 24.
In the sci-fi fable, global warming, natural disasters and a diminished ozone layer have increased humanity’s need for organ transplants. That’s where Malcolm “Bodyslick” Steel steps in. Typical drug hustling is obsolete and selling organs segues Malcolm to a lucrative empire.
Sibley turns South Chicago into a chaotic “survival of the fittest” Diaspora, where Maglev trains have replaced the traditional el, and genetic engineering becoming man’s last hope of survival from an influx of citywide illness. In the book, scientists use genetic engineering to produce a collection of animal-human hybrids, called humanzees and pigmanoids.
The story includes a moment when Dr. Graham, a University of Chicago neurosurgeon, performs the first successful head transplant, leading to unexpected consequences for the city.
There is a proverb on the back of the book that reads: “If life was a thing that money could buy, the rich would live and the poor would die.”
In many ways, this quote is a key to the story; a question about the dilemmas attached to wealth and privilege.
Sibley shows that the genetic breakthroughs that help some of his characters only do so because they have the financial ability to afford them. Others must fend for themselves. This is a reality the lead character exploits for all that it is worth.
Although BodySlick is largely a science fiction tale set in an urban landscape, it does have obvious parallels to real life, reflecting the political convictions of its author.
For example, early in the book, a black mayor named Darold Mannington has died of an apparent heart attack. The coroner, Dr. Wiener, however, believes foul play might have been involved and that the mayor was possibly poisoned.
This is a clear reference to the late Chicago Mayor Harold Washington, who died in 1987 of a heart attack. Conspiracies were pushed by some that there was more to Washington’s death, but no other cause has otherwise surfaced.
“I did have my questions about Mayor Washington’s passing,” Sibley said. “I don’t completely believe the story that it was simply a heart attack.”
Sibley’s also quick to add that BodySlick is not simply a “black book,” but instead an urban science fiction tale that can appeal to many readers.
“The book looks at the class system from a universal perspective. It deals with moral and ethical concerns about crime and industrialism that are all encompassing,” he said. “I think everyone will have something valuable to take from the story.”