What I Read in August

John Dies at the End by David Wong

Horror and black comedy are no strangers to one another. The two terms have become almost synonymous in modern media, to the point where anything scary or disturbing is almost expected to be funny or ironic at the same time. There isn’t a great deal of horror that is, for lack of a better term, truly horrible.

I bought this book after months of staring at ads for it on Cracked.com, expecting a full-on dose of pure black comedy. And the book delivers! This book has cutting wit and dopey one-liners, and pretty much every flavor of comedy in-between — exactly what I was expecting from one of Cracked’s more talented columnists. What I was not expecting, however, was for the horror aspect to shine through all on its own. Strongly and unambiguously. The actual sensation of slowly-creeping dread is something that is very hard to capture even in a big budget Hollywood blockbuster. When I started to notice John Dies doing it with prose, I realized I was reading something really special.

Horror is hard to get right. If it’s too funny, too over-the-top, it becomes a parody of itself. And if it’s played too straight it usually falls flat because of its inability to relieve its own tension (assuming it succeeded in creating tension in the first place — otherwise, it’s merely boring). John Dies gets it right. The book is scary and funny, but the funny things aren’t scary and the scary things aren’t funny. If that made any sense to you, you’ll probably dig it as much as I did.

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

This was recommended to me by my pal Nich. I told him I was in the mood for some good sci-fi, but I didn’t want any warp-speed-blaster pastiche, and he rattled this title off without even blinking.

The sci-fi elements were sparse. The book is set in Thailand at some nondescript point in the future, long after fossil fuels have been exhausted and the global economy we take for granted shrank back to the size of independant nation-states. This is a world where information travels only as fast as a man’s feet, where calories are meticulously counted and rationed, and where a coal-burning car is considered a luxury beyond mortal comprehension.

Genehacking, however, is common and widespread. Humanity stays alive by keeping their lab-enhanced crops one step ahead of the constantly-mutating diseases. The common housecat has long since been supplanted by more robust mutant creatures called cheshires. And the Japanese (being Japanese) have used the technology to create artificial humans, scorned by most of polite society, called windups.

The story is told from several different points of view, and while the central plot deals with the tribulations of a windup girl trying to survive the hostile environment of Bangkok there are heavy doses of military posturing, political machinations and economic wars coming in from all angles. There develops a kind of meta-story, privy to the reader only because he’s seeing so many different points of view. No one character has all the pieces, and as a result no one character (or group of characters) is guiding the plot. This is one of the best ways to build a truly satisfying story.

There were supernatural elements to the story I did not like. Nothing against supernatural elements, per se, they just pop up pretty late in a story otherwise trying to pass as hard science fiction. That aside, the book was great, and I didn’t feel like it wasted a single page. Well worth the read.

Help! A Bear is Eating Me! by Mykle Hansen

I don’t know why Amazon recommended this book, but once I saw the title I knew I had to read it. You don’t see a title like Help! A Bear is Eating Me! and not spend at least a few seconds in a state of, “What the hell?”

The book is about the world’s biggest asshole, a real sonofabitch corporate shark type, getting trapped under his gas-guzzling SUV while changing a tire somewhere in the Alaskan wilderness. Shortly thereafter, a bear starts eating him.

I want to say something about how the story explores the nature of modern man, conditioned to believe the world works within the artificial structures of society and wealth, and how jarring it is to transition suddenly back into a primitive world where there are no rules and where social class counts for nothing. The breath would be wasted, though. This is just a dumb book about some douche getting eaten by a bear. I think that’s what the author was aiming for, and that’s exactly what was delivered.

It’s short, you could kill it in a weekend, and you would spend that time reasonably entertained. Just… see if you can borrow it from somewhere, rather than spend the $8 Amazon wants to stick it on your virtual shelf.

Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson

This is another recommendation that came from Nich, although he didn’t exactly have to twist my arm. I’ve been a big fan of Snow Crash for years, and this book was largely more of that. Like, way more of that. This book ate up half of my month.

“That”, for the uninitiated, is a modern adventure tale written from the slant of hacker nerds and tech junkies. There’s a lot of jargon in here that is clearly written to go over the heads of most readers, while making others nod smugly to themselves. I did a lot of both over the course of the story.

The story covers two separate eras, and devotes a lot of time drawing interesting parallels between the two. First you have World War II era codebreakers, waging the hidden war of information on Axis powers. And then you have the modern hackers, would-be businessmen attempting to set up a data haven in a tiny Pacific monarchy. Before long the story becomes complicated with things like sunken submarines, Zeta functions, secretive church organizations and piles of Nazi gold — just like you’d expect in a good adventure tale.

Once again, the story is told from the perspectives of many individual characters. This creates a few mysteries the reader is able to solve, but the characters in the story never do, which is just the sort of story I enjoy most. And these are great characters! I cannot think of a single individual chapter where I felt at all bored or put off.

But looking back over the story as a whole, I really feel like the book was way too big for its own good. The individual stories and characters arcs were all great, but only about 10% of them actually serviced the overall plot. I would say the first one-quarter to one-third of the book only exists to position the various characters on the stage. I was heartily entertained by the incredibly detailed depiction of the slightly jaded Linux guru hacking his way through the jungle, or the sexual frustrations of a man who can’t get off unless his wife is wearing black stockings. These often went on for pages and pages and pages without actually arriving anywhere. It was kind of like being repeatedly jerked out of my perfectly good novel in order to read an unrelated short story.

I often wonder how much an established author can get away with, when it comes to this kind of cruft. There seems to be a point when a successful writer can just tell their editor to stuff it, and there were times I feel Cryptonomicon had overstepped it. Still a terrific read.

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3 comments to What I Read in August

  • Cyrael

    I re-read Cryptonomicon about once a year or so, and love it every time.

    I guess he has a new book coming out this month that is more in that style than say, Anathem or his Baroque Cycle… which has me really excited.

  • SpoonyBard

    I’ve been wanting to read Cryptonomicon. Hopefully I’ll get around to it someday. Haven’t had any luck finding a copy locally, though, for some strange reason. The only other Stephenson book I’ve seen on the shelves besides Snow Crash is Diamond Age.

  • Behemoth

    re: The Windup Girl (potential spoilers) – I assume when you say “supernatural elements” you are referring to the “ghost” that pops up late in the story. I don’t think that was actually a ghost, but rather was a manifestation of the haunted character’s grief and cognitive dissonance.

    re: Cryptonomicon – I loved Cryptonomicon, but The Baroque Cycle are some of my favorite books of all time. I heartily recommend them.

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