Wednesday, May 4, 2016
Sensation (book) by Nick Mamatas
I decided not to bother to include a separate read-alikes/watch-alikes list, because I could barely think of anything to list. A couple I'd suggest, however, are The Matrix (the robots are significantly more sinister than the spiders, but the result is similar) and A. Lee Martinez's Emperor Mollusk Versus the Sinister Brain (more B movie sci-fi than literary sci-fi, but, like the spiders, Emperor Mollusk has a huge amount of influence and tends to ride around in a fake body).
It all starts with a wasps' nest in Raymond's mother's basement. The wasps are Hymenoepimescis sp., which usually reproduces by attacking the Plesiometa argyra spider and laying its eggs within the spider's abdomen. As the larvae feed off the spider, they change its behavior, compelling it to create a web that can allow them to finish their development. When the spider is done with its work, the larvae kill it. (The spider and wasp species are real – nature is freaky and horrifying.)
Hymenoepimescis sp. doesn't usually build a nest or use humans as its hosts, but in this case it was affected by the unusually high radon levels in Raymond's mother's basement. Julia, Raymond's wife, is attacked by one of these wasps and unknowingly has its eggs injected into her. Over the course of the next few months, the larvae gradually affect her behavior in various ways, until one day she decides to leave Raymond. From that point on, she proceeds to become famous, carrying out an assassination and inspiring a nameless political movement which has no apparent goal. What neither she nor Raymond realizes is that they are both pawns in an ancient war between Hymenoepimescis sp. and Plesiometa argyra.
I'm not sure how I feel about this book. Part of the problem was that “war” was maybe too strong of a word for what was going on between the spiders and the wasps. Although the spiders were an intelligent collective and were, in fact, the book's narrator, the wasps were just doing their thing. When their hosts were spiders, “their thing” meant inspiring behaviors that would allow their larvae to survive and become adult wasps. They weren't intelligent and hadn't evolved to grow inside and control human hosts, so their effect on humans was more aimless and chaotic. The end result left me wondering what the point was supposed to be, and the story became more tedious than interesting.
I did enjoy the bulk of this book, though. I was drawn in by Julia's erratic behavior. I wanted to know what she'd do next and what sorts of actions she'd inspire (although she was the only one being directly affected by the wasps, she seemed to inspire changes in everyone around her, apparently without even meaning to). Raymond watched her antics on the news and desperately tried to make some sense of it all, unable to truly move on.
The main reason why I decided to read this book was because of the intelligent spiders. I liked that the story was told from their collective point of view, both as individual spiders trying to keep track of the movements of the various characters and as spider-controlled masses of webbing designed to look like “men of indeterminate ethnicity.” There were moments when I felt that the author occasionally slipped up, including details that Raymond would have known (about his own experiences and feelings, for example) that the spiders probably wouldn't have. Still, it was interesting, and I liked their very alien perspective on how they should behave and what sorts of things humans might feel comfortable with and enjoy. I wish there had been more of that.
The world-building didn't really work for me. I could deal with the way the wasps mutated to be able to inject their eggs into Julia (honestly, it wasn't much different than accepting that radiation could create superheroes), and the author did eventually (a bit later than I'd have liked) provide some of the history of the spiders' influence on humans. However, there were lots of things I wanted to know more about, and instead I got vagueness or absolutely nothing. I'm still wondering how a giant mass of spiders could create a believably human-looking being, especially since the spiders didn't always seem to be confident about their ability to successfully communicate like humans or create natural human facial expressions. And why weren't they more confident about their mimicry, considering how long they'd existed alongside humans?
I also had issues with the characters. Just about every female character in the book behaved, at one time or another, like she was Julia under the influence of wasps. It didn't seem like they were consistently themselves. And the thing was, I'd probably have been able to put up with that, and my issues with the world-building, if it had all amounted to something.
I really liked the premise and the unusual POV. I just wish the finale had been as good as the buildup.
I counted at least six typos or instances of missing words. That doesn't sound like a lot, but it was more than I expected in a work this short, and the errors were really noticeable.