Hard to classify Sensation by Nick Mamatas without describing the work like some obscure underground internet radio station. It definitely falls within the parameters of contemporary urban science-fiction, a more American counterpart to the British labyrinthine imaginings of China Mieville, while faintly echoing the finer philosophical musings of The Matrix movies. On the other hand, it confluences in wild absurdity, paralleling a strange hybrid of The Hitchhiker’s Guide with Woody Allen’s New York state of mind.
The story doesn’t have much of a center as it’s more a series of falling dominoes, beginning with an atypical breakup between lackluster couple Raymond and Julia, and the subsequent societal fallout both monitored and controlled from forces unforeseen. Such forces reveal themselves as the interplay between two warring super-intelligent species of spider and wasp, molding our reality as omnipresent observers of “indeterminate ethnicities”, policing society’s actions in their own war of survival.
Mamatas frequently references the butterfly effect in this work, using timely and humorous popular social references to illustrate the torrential effect of the small actions people collectively take, whether they be defacing newly constructed mega-stadiums, driving buses into the United Nations, or enacting “Plan Z” through the perfected strategy of web-based, pseudo-bourgeois “mutually assured confusion”. With all these accumulated acts, Mamatas eagerly invokes the free will argument, whether in this highly controlled universe or that of the interweaved, yet nebulous “Simulacrum” in which our players occasionally encounter themselves.
There’s a lot going on in Sensation. With creepy subtlety and detachment, Mamatas brilliantly narrates from the view of his hyper-intelligent spider species; his interweave of our reality and that of the Simulacrum is too underdeveloped for my taste though, as he focuses on the plight of an overeducated, insipid Raymond and his ubiquitous Julia. More time could have been spent on the hive-mind of his wasp species, for it too, was left wanting in relation to his spidey sense. The absurdity emanating from and surrounding his characters in an ever insane New York is quite enjoyable though; Mamatas deftly strangles our sense of self-importance, adding a much needed humility to our unquestionably mindless endeavors. It’s also an unquestionably worthwhile read.
Not at all a typical collection of short stories here. Matt Bell delivers a set of blueprints and indices with the utmost tender caress of detail to the mania festering among family, compatriots, combatants and the disaffected in his work How They Were Found. Read closely enough and you’ll find elements of fantasy and sci-fi, but what you’ll really discover is pure introspection amid the onslaught of grief and the bizarre, futile attempts of disassociation from it.
Stylistically the stories are wildly dissimilar, though all build a slow momentum to conclusions that are anything but. Stories that involve the best intentioned investigators who can’t help their attachment to the evidence, wild impromptu trysts of self-devouring in barroom lavatories, the story of sibling hoarders and their blind pursuit of each other buried within their castle, the detached indexing of the slow and gruesome disintegration of a family, and a priest’s obsession with the potential salvation of a new, steampunked Virgin Mary. Lingering stories that keep the readers guessing as to the characters’ interweaved histories.
Bell’s strength is evidenced by his incredible knack for manifesting a measured though chilling terror, but also for his unorthodox unlayering of the circumstances revealing the disturbing states in which his characters find themselves. Some of the stories suffer slightly from overcomplexity but there’s no doubt about their powerful themes and Matt Bell’s potential. A quality read.
Amelia Gray‘s Museum of the Weird is concisely that. This little compendium of curios doesn’t mess around; nay, it’s a sucker-punch of surreal hurled straight to the breadbasket. While some of the stories in this collection are a slow time-release of quirk into the bloodstream, others are a full-on mainline of weird cooked freshly from Gray’s meth lab of imagination. But in a good way, I assure.
The great thing about this work is the quality, as a majority of the stories, each contained within just a few pages, can easily be novellas or even larger works in scope. And while the sentiment typically flows from the wellspring of psychological insecurity of her characters, Gray’s talent shines from the reserved awkwardness in their behavior. A waiter serves an entrée of hair but it’s a matter of for whom, not if it’s eaten; the work required to maintain a modern snake farm of the highest professionalism; the un-reciprocated dedication to a bag of frozen tilapia or a paring knife; or even the uneasy barroom conversation between a penguin and armadillo. Gray makes it work, no matter how strange the situation and delivers feeling, regardless of how absurd, creepily gothic or awkwardly sweet.
The downside to the work is that it’s too bloody short. There’s a great spectrum of stories to sample, but they’re over too quickly. Throw in a couple of Gray’s intriguing writing exercises to fatten it out a bit and the reader will soon enough finish the book, noting not only the thoroughness of her weirdview but perhaps a hunger for something more. Museum of the Weird is a freakishly well-written book, ideal for those geared for a reread in order to fully savor.