Boy, I’m a slow piece of shit. My own book (NVSQVAM, aka NOWHERE, Nine Banded Books) is coming out tomorrow and I still have yet to get a review posted of Nick Mamatas’ latest novel, SENSATION. I’ve been meaning to do this for weeks, but it’s been one thing and then another… hm, maybe the reason only ten people read this blog is because there are only ten damn posts a year. Note to self: root out compulsive perfectionism. COMPLETELY! And then salt the earth where it… AAAAANEEEWAAAY. Everybody, meet Nick Mamatas and SENSATION.
Full disclosure: I’ve never lived in the same city as Nick, but I’ve corresponded with him on and off for christ–ten years or so now? He wrote the blurb that appears on the cover of NVSQVAM. We’ve met a couple of times and he has kindly (probably too kindly) included my stories in a couple of horror anthology projects he’s been involved with. And what project remotely related to modern sci-fi or horror hasn’t he been involved with? I swear the guy must have a time machine, he does and writes that much stuff. I’d like to think that if I were less of a misanthropic introvert I could be a bit like him, but fttt. How someone extroverted enough to get all the stuff-he-does-that-involves-others done actually manages to write as much as he does is a total mystery to me.
Aaaaanyway. When my copy of Sensation arrived, it was just after I’d written the post below, regarding Andy Nowicki’s The Columbine Pilgrim, and it got me thinking: wow. Whatever else there is in the world that pisses me off, at least I’ve survived till that period in my life (a shot relatively few people ever have on the board at all, so I count myself lucky in this regard) when people I actually know are putting out books I actually, genuinely want to read and take great pleasure in reading and would most likely read even if I didn’t know these people, assuming I found out about their books somehow (which isn’t that likely, since my chronically shitty income usually mandates that I find my reading material in the paperback section of the used book shop, if not the library). When you’re younger, of course, if you’re at all “creative” or if you associate with such animals, you will have all kinds of crap thrown at you by friends who, in their callow self-expression, are desperate for but so rarely deserving of praise. Always uncomfortable. So it’s very nice when the field begins to thin, and reading your friends’ shit stops being a chore and turns into a pleasure.
SENSATION is along the lines of YOU MIGHT SLEEP… , Mamatas’ 2009 collection of wacky sci-fi short stories, which was honestly about the best short-story collection (certainly takes the prize for sci-fi collections… sorry, Vonnegut) I’ve ever read. The conceits that Mamatas comes up with are incredibly clever, and he nearly always carries them out with a perfect version of the sort of wry humor that seems to be the most consistent method these days for lifting sci-fi stories safely clear of the overly-serious kitsch pit.
In SENSATION, all of human history is revealed as a byproduct of a war between a species of arachnid and the parasitic wasps who rewire the spiders’ brains to build them nests even as the wasps’ eggs hatch inside the spiders’ bodies. A human woman gets stung by a slightly radioactive wasp, and her ensuing hijinks set off a hipster revolution, an economic catastrophe, and some serious reality warps.
Since I’m just shitting this piece out, however, and because I’m tired as hell from my new temp job, instead of trying to boil down all the thoughts I had while reading SENSATION, I’m going to pick on what is at the forefront of my mind: the day my copy of the book arrived in the mail, Nick posted on Facebook about an ONION review of the novel. Big deal, hey!–most major publications only condescend to review one book a year anymore, so those slots are publicity most precious–but they kinda panned it. I refused to read the review before I read the book–not because I’m that horribly sensitive to peepwle picking on my fwends, but because I hate spoilers almost as much as I hate mosquitoes.
It was nagging me, however, as I read the book with great pleasure: oh damn, the mighty ONION AV Club (everyone knows that’s the paper’s weakest link, but power is power I suppose) knows why I shouldn’t be enjoying this, but I don’t. Oh no, I’m having fun in a pissed-in sandbox. I’m a philistine, boo hoo. I wonder why, exactly, though?
After finishing the book, however, when I let myself read the ONION article at last, I had to laugh with relief. One of their complaints was that a revelation halfway through the book sucked out the dramatic possibilities. Jesus shit, man, the first ten pages sucked out the dramatic possibilities! Mamatas isn’t much of a “dramatic” writer, at least not when he’s in sci-fi mode; he’s more of a funny-thinky writer. When you read one of his stories you don’t really care where he’s going, even though he isn’t predictable; you care how he gets there. It’s like reading a Jane Austen novel, except you don’t know the heroine is going to get married at the end–for all you know she could end up living inside a giant squid. But the squid isn’t the bloody point, it’s the squid jokes.
OK, so I didn’t feel too stupid about that. A simple difference in expectations; it was a complaint I could at least make sense of; the reviewer apparently expects drama in every story regardless of the type or intent of the tale (which puts him right up there with people who demand sympathetic characters, but at least it’s a coherent system of expectations).
The last sentence of the review is, however, kind of mind-blowing when you think about it, and I quote:
“Weirdly, SENSATION throws its most caustic satiric barbs at hipster poseurs, not the near-totalitarian aims of the spiders, which comes across as though Mamatas has switched allegiances this time, from Kerouac to Cthulhu.” [Mamatas’ previous novel heavily referenced Jack Kerouac.]
“Weirdly”? Really? Weirdly?! Weirdly, he satirized characters who were based on a type of people who actually exist instead of skewering those insidious, Nazi, hyper-intelligent spiders who control the world. Because, man, those fictional spider are totes the ones whose behavior needs critique and correction! Ho-lee-shitburgers. If you needed any evidence that the ONION’s AV Club might be a bit divorced from the mission of their editorial department, you might want to glance over that review for a minute. I never thought I’d see the day when I would feel the urge to gently explain the point of satire to the fucking ONION. Then again, Sarah Palin thinks her hair can run the federal government, and people are still watching AMERICAN IDOL, so… I give up. Reality is just going to do whatever the hell it wants, I guess.