Sunday, November 14, 2010

Out of the Black

by Lee Doty

There's a scene early on in Out of the Black where Ping is being questioned by the FBI. He's introduced to two agents of differing personalities and promptly declares: "'You know Garvey, I already like and trust you, but Bad Cop here scares me. You know...' Ping paused, stroking his chin in a parody of deep thought, '...the weirdest part is that the two of you together make me want to cooperate fully.'" [120]

Ping subsequently continues to think of the two as Good Cop and Bad Cop, and the narrative follows this approach. That moment captures a lot of the sense of this novel, and is probably a guide into whether a given reader will enjoy this work or not. If you found this interlude and the direct self-awareness of the moment a clever point of energy and humor, then it's likely you will enjoy the larger book. There is after all a fair amount to recommend it, fast pace, decently twisting plot, an unfolding setting, and a work that balances overt humor with a fairly light tone throughout. This is a book where it's easy to see why many people have responded favorably, and if someone approaches the book and likes it on those terms fine for them.

I didn't like that early scene, however, and have to count myself as one of the people who were put off by the overly self-aware narrative and the wider tone it supported. The problem is that this writing fundamentally is a case of cliches, and having the characters be aware of and engaging with such cliches doesn't ultimately make it any more creative. This lack of creativity, the courting of low ambition made the story drag at just the points where it put the most emotional emphasis down. I can be accused of holding too high standards, perhaps, but at some level this remains a five hundred page piece of speculative fiction, and there is the potential for the author to do noteworthy things with that area. Instead what's provided is ultimately a thin narrative, working decently when it's trying to be frightening, working less effectively for my money when it's trying to be humorous, but in any case working for a fairly low bar of action. There's nothing that precludes a novel from being both an effective action-experience and delivering a something of substance, but in this incarnation the later seems to not have been on the table. It becomes most apparent near the end when truly cosmic horror emerges and the narrative would benefit from a sense of real collapse and menace. Instead, what emerges are specific scenes of tension framed by talk of ninja-zombies, in a way that shows the story ultimately failing to take itself seriously.

This all makes it sound like I'm harsher on the book than I really am. There were some good lines and inspired moments--"Most were wearing that evil gonna-get-to-cut0someone grin considered socially acceptable in pre-muder situations." [183] but the work as a whole suffers from over-statement, over-emphasis, forcing a measure of character response that suits a type of wry meta-commentary but is not credible in the situations depicted as such. Along with the story showing too little, ultimately, of real credibility and force there is too much of some of the characters, reveling in their thoughts and cultural comparisons, to an extent that it makes the whole venture appear as rather silly. I'd take Issak Kaspari picturing himself as a mad scientist [223] as a strong example of this, where his quirks and imagination are inflated to a point where any sense of his complexity or larger believability as a character get smothered. What people are saying and thinking is far too obviously in for the state of allowing the novel to position itself in the field.

With all this I'd still have considered it fairly passable, considering the relative effectiveness of the final story, but there's a final major factor that weakens the text. The worldbuilding is where the lack of creativity really becomes crippling, and the issue of taking the future seriously becomes much harder. In essence, this does not feel adequately like a believable extension beyond the present. While there are clear indications of technological change the political dynamic is overly conventional, and the cultural references are incredibly overt. The constant references by characters to Blade Runner are implausible but perhaps can be excused thematically, but the issues go beyond that, with people having a deep working familiarity with The Matrix, Cool as Ice and similar films of that era, but not anything beyond that, or really any cultural construct after the present. It would be as if the whole of our current literary references had no one latter than Henry James. It's incredibly implausible, and features as a real point where more authorial innovation and willingness to go become the conventional would have been effective.

Not a terrible book by any means, but an overly unambitious one, without strong enough humor or sentence-by-sentence writing to give the book enough substance.

Similar to and better than: Feed by Mira Grant

Similar to and worse than: Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds

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