I’ve been a bit out of steam on pop culture lately. On a whim, and maybe as a way to recapture how I used to discover books when I was a kid, I grabbed two books off the shelf at my local library, and jumped into them blind.
Now it’s true that I did know a fair bit about both authors, so it wasn’t a completely random selection. Also, both were science fiction, so I certainly wasn’t straying too far from my natural inclinations. What surprised me most was how similar the books were, structurally speaking, and how one book seemed to work generally better than the other. Both were definitely fun reads, so maybe judging a book by its cover is not such a bad idea after all!
The first book I read was Diving Into the Wreck by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. I know Rusch from her days as the editor of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, but even though I knew she was a fairly active writer in the time since then, I hadn’t read any of her books. True to my project, I jumped into the book without any foreknowledge… and I loved it!
Here was a story that hit all the right notes for me: a strong central character, in this case a woman named Boss; a fun science-fictional future, in this case a future where 5000 years of faster-than-light space travel has left space littered with interesting space wrecks for Boss to investigate; and some convincing emotional undercurrents, told in a nifty way that intensified the story.
Then it ended, about one-third of the way into the story! That’s when I discovered that this was a novella, previously published. The second third of the book was another novella in the same milieu, with the third section of the book presumably added on for the purposes of calling this a novel. Yes, it all does hang together, but it got fairly clunky, and the bits and pieces showed their seams much more readily than other so-called fix-up novels in the genre (for example, Herbert’s Dune was originally two long novellas as well). Worse, the book ends on a really obvious and unsatisfying set-up for a sequel. I know that sequels are the mainstay of the business, but there are appealing and unappealing ways to do the groundwork for book two.
Next up was This Is Not a Game by Walter Jon Williams. The title is a common catchphrase from the world of alternate reality games (ARGs), and to give credit to Williams, this book was published in 2009, when ARGs were actually still in the news. That’s the problem with near-future thrillers – what if your hot new trend has fizzled in a few years? Thankfully, the book is a tightly constructed thriller. It reminded me a bit of Ready Player One, without the obsessive 80s nostalgia, and much better plotting.
I got a little worried though, when the opening section of This Is Not a Game had the same disconnected novella feeling. The first section of the book, Act 1 as Williams labels it, follows the main character through some adventures in Jakarta, while the rest of the book takes place in Los Angeles. However, the Jakarta material turns out to be rather nicely dramatized demonstration of some peril that comes up in the plot later on. It’s kind of like the thing that was missing at the end of The Matrix: Revolutions – what, Agent Smith is taking over the matrix and that’s a bad thing? I really could have used some warning or dramatic material demonstrating that! (Apologies for this example, by the way – for someone in a pop culture slump, I really shouldn’t have been rewatching the Matrix sequels!).
Williams also plays some fun tricks with foreshadowing and what seem to be obvious twists. One of the first things we find out in the book, even before we meet our heroine in Jakarta: the computer mogul she works for is checking his offshore bank account and has $12 billion in it. Sounds good, except that he seems to regard this as some sort of tragedy. It’s a nice reveal that hangs over the rest of the book. For some of the later twists and turns, I could see the mechanics of them at the same time as I appreciated the smooth maneuvering of plot pieces.
Both Diving Into the Wreck and This Is Not a Game already have sequels. I’ll probably read the Williams sequels; the difference, for me, is that Williams leaves lots of loose ends and interesting threads to follow in subsequent books, but wraps up this particular book on a lovely emotional note. Good stuff.
Where does this leave me in my quest to re-energize my love of genre and pop? I’m not entirely sure. Random books from the library… that’s a bit of a stunt, and almost impossible to sustain in this age of information overload. I was already fairly picky in my choices, so getting more selective seems counter-productive. I think I enjoyed Williams’ book more than I would have otherwise because I had some time set aside to read it and dig into it (and ended up reading it in almost entirely in one sitting, which hasn’t happened in a few years). With a bit of planning and luck, I might be able to pick another book and have the same fun/intense experience.