Well, that was a lot of fun.
With that title – “The Return of the Incredible Exploding Man”, and my love of his Fractured Europe series, I was always going to read this novel of Dave Hutchinson‘s. However, I am never early to the party, and I see that it has been out in the world for two years now. [I make no apologies, dear Reader, I don’t have a TBR pile, I have a TBR bookcase, but as I keep reminding my wife, if it’s books, it’s not hoarding. (My wife is among other things a librarian, and has no hesitation in disposing of books.) If I could find it, I would insert a link here to a tweet of Christopher Slatsky‘s where he included a picture of him throwing away copies of his books, and by that I mean, books he wrote himself. *Shudder*]
I wouldn’t know how to review something, and plenty of others do that anyway, but I can pass on some of my reactions as I read. We live in a world where rather than pay their taxes, a bunch of rich boys are doing space things, when of course they could instead become vigilantes:
I do not want to live in a world where Jeff Bezos is Batman. Comics and movies where Batman was busting unions and catching out couriers who stop to pee would not be very interesting to me. There is something though to that line of SnyderAffleckBatman, responding to the question, what’s your superpower: “I’m rich”. The Muskybezosvirgingate of the world of Exploding Man is Stan Clayton, a wizard who may enter your life and magic your worries away, or grant opportunities of a life time, all with the application of money. There are of course things beyond his immediate abilities, for example he is not a particle physicist and for some bizarre reason may not be able to visualise the true world opened up by quantum mechanics (unlike the rest of us – I can plainly see that the cat is dead), but he can pay other people to do those things for him. He can buy counties and set up experiments that governments can no longer afford. We know him, and he is not us.
Point Pleasant is a place that still takes up some of my mental space, despite my never having travelled to the US, due to my spending a lot of imaginative time with John Keel as a young man, and the main (only?) town of the said bought county, Sioux Crossing, certainly has a Point Pleasant vibe to it, especially if in addition to buying all of America’s farmland Bill Gates also bought West Virginia and spruiced it up. There’s something forteanic going on there, right from the outset when someone who is not there knocks on doors that could not possibly be knocked upon, and police refer to a mystery prowler. Keel had Mary Hyre in The Mothman Prophecies, our hero Alex Dolan has Dru Winslow, editor of the local paper, to fall back upon, to check out the history of mystery of the area. Other relationships fall into place, with everyone in the small town: the police chief, the mayor, the curmudgeonly neighbour, the nice lady scientist. Yes, its convenient, yes it may fit genre conventions, but how else does a story get told when people have to learn stuff about stuff? If nobody ever told the PI things, the crime story would not get very far. If there were never any convenient clues, books would be thin. Hutchinson does not shy away from this being a genre story, or from the expected tropes. There are barely (if at all) clouded (and fun) references to The Hulk and Spiderman, for example. Knowingness is part of the charm.
And there is plenty of charm. Dolan regularly refers to everything being too perfect, and everyone being too nice and too friendly, and I really liked that. My wife laughs when I enjoy movies and tv more than I really should, because people are, or become, friends. Part of the attraction of some tropes is that they are wish fulfillment, and what is wrong with a wish that someone waltzes into town and makes friends? Hell, if it was me, I’d nod and smile and have one conversation per week if I was lucky, so yes, I enjoyed how he made friends. I also enjoy how he flips the bird at authority, while still actually really just going along with it and obeying most rules and taking the money even when he suspects it is a bit tainted and even when he says outright that he is selling his soul. In many ways he is ordinary (this is important) with some bits ratcheted up a notch or two.
Bad things happen. People take risks because they are fundamentally good and not cowards. People suffer from horrible diseases for no good reason, because that is the way of the world. Storms kill people. Horror is not sugar coated, but nor is it dwelt upon morbidly – we persevere because otherwise there would not have been a human race to start with. The superhero universe is hit with a reality stick, and if there is a bit of Marvel or DC Universe feel to any of this, it is quickly reflected through another lens, with direct references to HP Lovecraft. The horrors beyond are not cute and don’t make good plushies, not in a world with only four dimensions. Its not Disney, not unless Disney is hiring Charles Stross as a screenwriter.
Perhaps there are things humanity should not explore. Lovecraft wrote “We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of the infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.” Exploding Man does not even bother to engage with that, assuming, I think correctly, that if there is sufficient money and sufficient know-how, people are going to do all of the shit. Scientists behind the Manhattan project had a genuine fear they would ignite the world’s atmosphere. The whole world is currently engaged in a massive climate gamble. We designate random dates as “Freedom Day” and open ourselves up to spreading a plague over and over. Cautionary tales are not warnings, they are explorations of the inevitable. Here, there is the potential of a massive price to pay, with references to a possible extinction level event. Like those who suffered conjunctivitis, facial burns and madness at Point Pleasant, here there are at first early deaths and cancers for individuals who came too close to the unknown (just like Marie Curie), and later, unknown fates for soldiers deliberately put in harms way
Forteana is associated with paranoia and the Trickster, and there is plenty of that present here, almost in the way that a magnetic field generates a current in a wire that moves through it. People are routinely spied upon; homes are wired for sound in a way not envisaged by Cliff Richards; tinfoil is made use of. Arms caches are discovered, with the only explanation being, America. The military is involved, but the military may not even know why. Someone may be a spy for no useful purpose. Strange and horrible messages are spiked onto porches. People are found dead where the laws of physics should not allow them to be.
Mark Millar speaks of his Nemesis comic in tagline terms such as “What if Batman was The Joker?” or “What if Batman was a total c****?”. In Exploding Man, I have a feel of “What if Dr Manhattan was not a total doofus, and remembered what it was like to be a person?”. If we can say there is salvation, it is not a one-off event, it is a process requiring vigilance (Watch the skies, watch the skies!) and repeated bravery, with a big fat hint of, this will not work forever. It is clear that salvation in part depends upon a fluke, and we are presented with clear alternatives. The Big Bad could have been The Big Only. The Good Guy could have turned out to be The Venal Guy, if the universe had placed General Former Airman Fenwick in the wrong place at the right time (one of many lovely touches). The people of Exploding Man depend upon someone wanting not to be Muskybezosvirgingate, and wanting to be a bit normal and ordinary, and though they have to work up their courage, they keep trying to help. And to me, that is good and the way it should be.
As I say, not much by way of a review, but I can say that I really, really liked The Return of the Incredible Exploding Man.