Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Reality—For Sale, Cheap!

salem, Black Hole Butterfly

In a lawless future Manhattan, PI Rook Black traces a scientist’s murder to a secretive Chinatown underground of supertechnology, art, and crocodile wrestling. There he finds brewing war between Gasland, the organized muscle behind petroleum, and the Naranja Empire, whose solar-powered tech is reshaping society. The enemies square off over control of Shakespeare, whose prose constantly re-creates reality around us. Rook Black is a pawn in their operation.

In tone and technique, salem’s debut novel resembles classics from William Gibson and Pat Cadigan. The collision between human nature, with its dogged continuity from age to age, and our built environment, which refuses to stand still, feels almost exactly like the Reagan-era “future shock” novels I grew up reading, though rather than distrusting computers, the disquieting technology has reached a higher order. Confoundingly, this doesn’t go nearly far enough.

salem writes in slow, cerebral tones, a languorous prose poem of butterflies, Buddha, quantum mechanics, and sulfur matches. Rook Black is a gripping character, both soberly analytical and deeply sensual. His struggle to track Jack the Butterfly, who sells black-market reality to Chinese criminals, defies retelling. This isn’t some paperback potboiler you fall asleep under; you immerse yourself in salem’s lush prose, absorbing Rook Black’s struggle to understand the inexplicable.

This novel thrums with compressed energy so tight, you can practically hear the orchestral score beneath its silent prose. (salem’s career began writing unproduced screenplays.) Secrets come dribbling out, not predictable, but certainly reliable. salem’s language hides secrets: for instance, the Naranja Empire. Naranja, Spanish for “orange.” Significant? Yes, but the reasons why prove as elusive as the pseudo-reality Jack the Butterfly sells under the table.

But this same storytelling proves this novel’s greatest weakness. salem positions this novel as a sci-fi mystery, much like Cadigan or Jonathan Lethem wrote twenty years ago. But pages and pages pass without dialog, possibly salem’s Achilles heel. Though rich with introspective tone, the characters—a cast of thousands—don’t interact much. Mysteries require people to talk, to divulge secrets. We get scads of soul-searching, but precious little action.

salem’s reliance on darkness, rain, and an unchangingly bleak backdrop channels Alex Proyas’ 1998 sleeper classic Dark City, and when I realized that, problems set in. I began seeing echoes of the Wachowskis, Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next novels, and even Star Trek’s holodeck, stories and storytellers who cast doubt upon reality. This familiarity, this reliance on mass-media tropes we’ve already overanalyzed, takes readers outside salem’s profoundly immersive narrative.

Science fiction, more than any other genre except perhaps spy thrillers, is innately tied to the time when it was written. Our concepts of the future, our understanding of technological potential, changes regularly. Networked computers, which terrified Bruce Sterling and William Gibson, seem ordinary now. Rocket ships, far from recapturing the glamour of Spanish exploration, have less personality than dump trucks. Skiffy, generally, doesn’t date well.

But rather than address our era’s relationship with technology, salem revisits Mulder and Scully’s conspiracy theorizing. Though Rook Black gradually uncovers massive secrets, which salem reveals with grace and aplomb, they have a texture of unrelenting familiarity. salem, I came to realize, is an excellent prose stylist; but this narrative is a massive portmanteau of late-1990s stereotypes so comfy, one suspects salem has made a nest in another decade.

This is a novel of ideas. Rich, lushly deconstructed ideas, ripe with potential to demonstrate psychological profundity and social impact. salem’s characters unpack implications to make William Gibson look comparatively unambitious, expounded in language balanced on the cusp between Raymond Chandler and Allen Ginsberg. It’s both a throwback to my paperback youth, and a bold experiment. Stylistically and conceptually, I’ve seen little like this in the last twenty years.

This isn’t a novel of characters. Though salem has many characters with interesting motivations and enigmatic backstories, they don’t so much interact as collide, and each remains so bound by their respective situations, they prove slow to change, resistant to each other even under duress. Because they scarcely interact, their ideas get propounded, but only intermittently tested and refined. salem proffers profound viewpoint characters, but they interact only sporadically.

Thus, how readers receive this novel depends on what expectations they bring into the experience. I found plenty to enjoy, particularly how it recalls the science fiction that corresponded with my dawning maturity. Yet salem’s admittedly ambitious story never gains traction, partly because it gives little place to hang my attention. We have the rudiments of an excellent novel here. It just doesn’t go far enough.

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