March 20, 2009

Book review: "End of the Century," by Chris Roberson

(CCLaP is dedicated to reviewing as many contemporary books as possible, including self-published volumes; click here to learn how to submit your own book for possible review, although be warned that it needs to have been published within the last 18 months to be considered. For the complete list of all books reviewed here, as well as the next books scheduled to be read, click here.)

End of the Century
By Chris Roberson
Pyr / ISBN: 978-1-59102-697-6

When it comes to the subject of genre projects, I like to think of there being two main types of artists out there: at the top you find a small number of so-called "A-writers," people like Neal Stephenson and JJ Abrams who are able to elevate their material beyond the usual genre tropes and thus appeal to a large general audience; and then there are the much more numerous "B-writers," the ones cranking out the majority of projects in that genre, who are not necessarily that bad (not necessarily) but for sure are the ones helping to more and more cement the rules of that genre, not break them. And let's face it, most of the time this isn't such a horrible thing, which is why the ten-point scale I use here at CCLaP is designed the way it is (for those who have never gotten to read the ridiculously long guide to CCLaP's scoring system I wrote a couple of years ago); it's why books that score only in the sevens and eights here might actually be fantastic, simply that they will appeal only to existing fans of that genre, while for a title to get a nine or above it simply must in one way or another transcend its natural stereotypes, and not just be well-written.

End of the Century, by Chris Roberson

Take for example End of the Century, the latest title by science-fiction veteran and multiple genre-award nominee Chris Roberson; because it's not a bad book at all, not by a long shot, and will be thoroughly entertaining to anyone who's already a fan of, say, Buffy or Xena or any of those other Saturday-afternoon genre television shows. But much like these shows, the novel is simply a little hacky, with a plot that is too easily guessed and dialogue that is often subpar. In many ways, after all, this is precisely how we define fans of a particular genre in the first place (otherwise slightly insultingly known as "fanboys" and "fangirls"), is by how willing they are to overlook things like weak dialogue and easily anticipated plot developments, in order to wallow in the fetishistic touches of that genre they love so much; and this book is no exception, more than making up for its general-lit problems with a whole cornucopia of string-theory-this and steampunk-that, and all the other little details that SF fanboys are always on the lookout for. And this is simply bound to please some and frustrate others, which is also the whole point of having genres in the first place.

In fact, this is not only the steampunk story just mentioned, but actually four stories rolled into one: a medieval tale, a Victorian tale, a contemporary "cyberpunk" tale, and a thread concerning a shadowy time-traveling secret society that ties all these interwoven sections together. And yes, if this sounds exactly word for word like the concept for Ian McDonald's much superior Brasyl, put out last year by the same publisher (all the way down to similar indestructible glowing "quantum swords" only a few molecules thick, which I don't mind divulging because there's one right on the freaking cover), that's because it is; in fact, such a story structure is rapidly becoming so popular within the world of SF that you could almost count it as a new subgenre unto itself, which I suppose we could call the "tri-history tale" today for convenience's sake.

And like all tri-history tales, the whole point of End of the Century is to get caught up in all the witty details on display, the various clever shoutouts to the existing pillars of these particular story types; for example, the steampunk section revolves around a Sherlock Holmes pastiche named Sandford Blank, who in this case lives on York Street instead of Baker, who plays the flute instead of the violin, who's known for his bowler and silver-tipped cane instead of a deerstalker and briar pipe, whose companion is an attractive young woman named Bonaventure instead of the dowdy Doctor Watson. And yes, if the name 'Bonaventure' sounds familiar to Roberson's existing fans, there's a good reason; as he explains in the book's postscript, nearly every character seen here has some connection or another to nearly ever other book he's already written, in effect creating a self-contained Robersonian alternate universe, yet another hallmark of prolific B-writers no matter what the genre. (And by the way, it ain't just genre writers who enjoy creating pervasive alternate universes where all their books are set; see John Updike's "Rabbit" series, Philip Roth's "Zuckerman" titles and other such "general literature" books for ample proof of that.) And so do all these references work in two different directions; not only is the subversive antihero of the contemporary section a tough leather-jacket-wearing teenage girl, just like every single other cyberpunk story ever freaking written, but the Richard-Branson-type billionaire she eventually robs turns out to be one of the major characters as well from Roberson's earlier Paragaea: A Planetary Romance.

Yeah, I know; I can literally hear the eyes of several thousand CCLaP readers rolling as we speak, even as I hear several hundred others (you know who you are) quietly muttering, "Ooh, cool, I gotta check that book out." And that's the nature of genre work, and why we invented the term 'genre' to begin with, simply because it's work that naturally appeals to some and naturally repels others. Or to use an example that I already mentioned, let's take Buffy's creator Joss Whedon again, because the fact is that I myself am not much of a fan of his although most of my friends are; and that's what lets those otherwise very intelligent people get a sincere pleasure out of such shows as Angel and Dollhouse, that to me seem more appropriate for easily-impressed fourteen-year-olds than for sophisticated grown-ups. As I'm constantly reminded now that I'm a critic, not every artistic project we consume has to be designed solely for sophisticated grown-ups wishing to challenge themselves; in fact, most of us would probably burn out within mere weeks if we were to try maintaining a steady diet of only Pulitzer winners (or only Hugo winners, or only Stoker winners).

In fact, apart from this more philosophical debate over A-writers versus B ones, there's really only one thing about End of the Century that I feel worth legitimately calling out for criticism; and that's the rushed, exposition-heavy, literally deus-ex-machina ending Roberson tacks on, which I won't spoil but will say is the literary equivalent of the Simpsons' "Poochie" episode, where at the end they quickly explain away Poochie's death with a ridiculously nonsensical story thought of on the fly at the last moment. ("I must go now. My planet needs me." And then Poochie's spaceship blew up. The End.) There's a reason that such "god in the machine" endings, once highly popular among ancient Greek theatre-goers (which is where we get the term), have fallen out of favor among contemporary audiences, because these kinds of endings always feel like a cheat; whenever the last 50 pages of a novel rely on events and concepts that were never mentioned even once in the 400 pages leading up to the climax, in many ways it feels to the reader like the author saying, "And then a big f-cking finger came out of the sky and squished them all to death." And that's a letdown, and makes many people feel like the previous 400 pages they just took the time to read were ultimately a giant waste; and that was enough of a problem here for the book's score to drop a bit by the end, just for this reason and this reason alone.

It's for all of these things mentioned that such so-called B-novels are so hard to review, and why so many critics tend to simply skip these kinds of books altogether; because I don't exactly want to recommend End of the Century to everyone out there, but neither do I want to dismiss it, even with it being full of small elements we have every right to be dismissive of. Ultimately it gets a recommendation from me today, but only a limited one, and with me absolutely not wanting to get any angry letters along the lines of, "I picked this up because you told me to, but it was crap!" You may very well feel this way about today's book by the time you're done, so consider yourself duly warned; all you fangirls, however, might very well want to pick up a copy anyway.

Out of 10: 7.3

Read even more about End of the Century: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Enjoy this review? Hate it? Share your thoughts at the CCLAPocracy, the center's new community-driven microblog. Membership is free!

Filed by Jason Pettus at 4:25 PM, March 20, 2009. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |