In "The Janitor on Mars," the seventh story in "Heavy Water," Martin Amis' new collection, a robot left behind by an advanced yet now extinct Martian civilization addresses the human race. Launching into a hilarious riff on the technofetishistic jargon of "hard" science fiction, it explains that even Mars' titans shriveled with despair upon discovering that they were mere pawns in a chain of ever more incomprehensibly superior entities, beginning with the Infinity Dogs, who were "merely the errand boys of the type-l agency called the Resonance. Which in turn owes tribute to a type-j imperium called the Third Observer." What motivates such godlike beings? Certainly not spiritual hunger or creative ambition. "Nobody's interested in art," this Nietzschean C3PO observes. "They're interested in what everybody else is interested in: the superimposition of will."
There, blown up to comically cosmic proportions, is the British writer's take on life: one long, merciless, inescapable pecking order. If you can tolerate the bitter aftertaste that this view leaves (Amis must be big with the Selfish Gene crowd), his fiction offers many pleasures. The prose is jam-packed with displays of virtuosity. In "The Coincidence of the Arts," Amis concocts one of his trademark lists to describe a Manhattan populated entirely by artists, where "even the babies starred in ads and had agents ... [and] the AC installers were all installationists. The construction workers were all constructivists." He can nail types with a cool savagery that might awe even the Third Observer: "More scavenger than predator, in matters of the heart, Rodney was the first on the scene after the big cats had eaten their fill. He liked his women freshly jilted."
Amis is a satirist; he deals in surfaces and dispenses gags. The short story ought to be his ideal form, since, like a Top 40 single, it ends (presumably) before you're bothered by how slight it is. For some reason, though, Amis has often channeled his most unconvincing attempts at gravitas into his stories (as in "Einstein's Monsters," a theme collection about nuclear war). Fortunately, the stories in "Heavy Water" seldom attempt to plumb such depths, and the book is tremendous fun to read. "Career Move" portrays a world in which the lot of poets and of screenwriters is reversed. A poet lounges around pools in L.A. saying things like "How did 'Eclogue by a Five-Barred Gate' do?" while a screenwriter agonizes over cover letters to tiny magazines that pay in the low two figures. It's a one-joke shtick, but Amis makes it work, mostly because he doesn't push it too far. (Was there ever a more endless slim volume than the stunt novel "Time's Arrow"?) Likewise "Let Me Count the Times," about a man whose statistical analysis of his sex life goes haywire when he embarks on an epic masturbatory binge.
"The Coincidence of the Arts" -- which involves a dim Anglotrash painter who sponges off rich New Yorkers -- shows the laserlike edge of Amis' social satire, and "State of England" proves once again that lower-class louts elicit the best of his limited gift for characterization. Only "Denton's Death" (the earliest piece), with its connect-the-dots existential misery, and "What Happened to Me on My Holiday" (the most recent), a tiresome dialect story, are flat-out duds. That bitter aftertaste still lingers, but the helpings are easier to digest when they're small.