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Sensation in Locus (May)

By Tim Pratt 
Locus
May 2011

Sensation by Nick Mamatas is a political satire and a meditation on the nature of reality reminiscent of Philip K. Dick, exploring the secret history of an age-old war between a hive-mind of hyperintelligent spiders and their implacable mindless enemies, a species of parasitic wasp. (The entirety of human history is either driven by that war or incidental to it.)

The main character–only occasionally ‘‘heroine’’ –is Julia Ott Hernandez, a typical middleclass New Yorker, reflexively liberal and shallowly intellectual, the kind of person who would ‘‘weave these fantasies of taking on whaling ships with Greenpeace but satisfied herself with $100 checks here and there.’’ The engine of Julia’s transformation into a sort of anarchist prankster/murderess is not a sudden realization about social injustice or a trauma that causes a psychotic break; she just gets stung by a wasp.

Specifically a mutant Hymenoepimecis sp., a parasitic wasp that normally preys on spiders, injecting them with mind-controlling eggs that force the spiders to spin a cozy cocoon for newborn wasplings, before becoming food for those same baby insects. This time, the mind-altering eggs get oviposited into Julia, and her behavior changes in anarchic ways–she becomes a habitual jaywalker, embezzles money from her job, and eventually walks out on her anthropology professor husband to live with a succession of one-night stands.

A chance encounter with a couple of anti-gentrification Brooklyn hipsters (who wouldn’t be there if Brooklyn hadn’t already been intensely gentrified) prompts Julia to first vandalize a new sports stadium and later to shoot the stadium’s developer in the head. Her actions prompt a sort of apolitical political movement–called the ‘‘movement without a name’’ or ‘‘Sans Nom’’–characterized by outrageous acts of public protest, whimsy, and the incitement of chaos. That movement swells sufficiently to threaten the status quo, forcing the secret masters of humanity to step in.

Those masters are none other than the Plesiometa argyra spiders, who, in a clever authorial choice, narrate the novel in the plural first person. The spiders just want to help: but they want to help humankind be stable, unchanging, and non-threatening. After all, humans accidentally eradicate entire species all the time–what’s to stop us from doing that to the spiders themselves? Obviously, constant monitoring and occasional intervention are necessary for the survival of their species.

The spiders are almost everywhere, masquerading as people ‘‘of indeterminate ethnicity’’–fake humans mostly woven from cobwebs, memorably described as ‘‘spiders in a man-suit.’’ They take Julia into the Simulacrum, a sort of shadow reality that lives alongside ours, in the most boring suburbs and socially stagnant small towns and culturally insular city neighborhoods, where the spiders are in complete control. They give her a new life and identity, but Julia’s blood is fizzing with wasp eggs and wild ideas about freedom, and she doesn’t stay hidden for long. She goes on the run, sowing chaos wherever she goes, crossing paths with her husband, his new girlfriend (a behavioral psychologist), those gentrification kids from the beginning of the book, and various members of Sans Nom. Crimes are committed, great revelations are revealed, and love and politics are twisted in the process. The world changes; Julia changes; and the idea of whether anyone can really change the world at all is called into question.

My one quibble is that Sensation seems to take place in an implausibly small world, with the same people crossing paths way too often in New York and Ohio and elsewhere. The book’s satirical quality mitigates that somewhat, and the author does make narrative excuses–the spiders complain often about how coincidence seems to conspire against them–but it still seems too neat and convenient at times.
Mamatas is profoundly interested in the political power of fiction, but he’s not so much grinding a particular ideological axe here as he is taking an axe to every ideology in sight. The author has a lot of personal experience with political movements and their efficacy or lack thereof, and he isn’t shy about calling them to account for ineptitude, hypocrisy, and failure of ambition and imagination. Sensation is deeply political without being preachy, and it’s a bracing, original read, quite unlike any other book you’re likely to encounter. Which is just the way the spiders want it.

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