Sensation: A Review
By John H. Stevens
June 14th, 2011
REVIEW SUMMARY: Perspective-altering, surreal hybrid offspring of a political thriller, an SF epic, and weird dystopia.
MY RATING: 4/5 stars
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A woman is stung by an anarchist wasp and is pulled into a side-reality created by an intelligent spider collective who have been influencing humanity's progress. Socio-political insanity, hilarity, and complications ensue.
PROS: Funny, perceptive, disorienting writing; entertaining and thought-provoking; well-rendered characters are strongly realized within an unreliable narrative.
CONS: A few confusing moments towards the end, and an occasional conundrum arises about how the narrators know what they know.
BOTTOM LINE: Read this book; it will make you laugh, worry, and wonder about human nature and our often insane society.
There comes a point in Nick Mamatas' Sensation where you find yourself a bit lost. Not adrift, not confused, but led off of the path. It's a seductive moment, when you realize that the weirdness of the narrative, the ideas that Mamatas threads through the story, have made you start asking questions, not just about the novel but also about the world around you. This happens a few times while reading the novel, and becomes one of the strengths of the book, because in those moments you feel a bit of what the characters do as they are manipulated and dislocated by forces that, even when they discover and try to understand them, continue to exert influence on them. The world that Mamatas creates in this novel is not just strange, but so true to life in the actions of its characters in response to that strangeness that you are compelled to keep reading and thinking, even when those actions seem ridiculous or the story seems headed in a random direction.
It is that constant unbalancing, the slipperiness of the story, the unreliability of every element, that creates the novel's texture. It reads smoothly on the page, even when the text is altered, but what you take in as you read is often perplexing, almost counter-intuitive, yet necessary and familiar. Insight and idiocy careen off of one another through the actions of the characters, making the story feel genuine even in its most outrageous moments.
The story (and I will say that there are mild spoilers ahead, although I don't think this novel can be "spoiled") is simple: Julia Ott Hernandez leaves her husband, the hapless Raymond, after being stung by a mutated wasp and becomes a random force in the world that is so potentially destabilizing that she must be opposed by those who truly run the world, an intelligent collective of spiders fighting a eternal war with these wasps, who thrive by using those spiders as hosts for their offspring. Her actions, and the reactions of the spiders in their efforts to control her, create political and social ripples that profoundly, if perhaps temporarily, upset the way the world works. Despite their efforts to trap her in a parallel reality called the Simulacrum, Julia becomes a nexus of uncertainty and change in the web of society that the spiders try to keep strong and even. We learn about this conflict through their eyes, and the story progresses as an extended narrative of an alien (not from outer space, but from outside human experience) intelligence trying to understand why, for all of its capabilities and vision, it cannot keep a species of generally dull, obedient apes in line.
Those apes are, to mess with Clifford Geertz, suspended in webs of signification they themselves have not spun. although they act as if they have made the world they live in. And in some ways they have; while the spiders tell us this story, their control over the events in it is not just imperfect, but sometimes profoundly ambiguous, contingent on coincidence and circumstance, and often productive not of domination but of opportunities for humans to resist them. If that sounds like a political allegory, well, it is, but one that does not browbeat the reader. The assured, yet sometimes confused, tone of the spiders' narration sounds as much like propaganda as it does a retelling of facts, and that is part of the point.
The workings of power and the meaning of agency are primary themes in this novel. What is control, really? How do you know what the effects of your actions will be, whether you are trying to manipulate someone, or resist manipulation? The novel posits many troubling but necessary questions as it unravels, as careful plans constantly go awry, and the allure of restraint and the comfort of both habit and delusion do more to constrain action and frame perception than the machinations of unseen arachnid overlords. Even these machinations are fraught with ossification and ambiguity; those who seek to control us, it seems, have as much trouble dealing with the vicissitudes of life as humans do.
The tension between intentionality and entropy provides much of the novel's propulsive energy.
Humorous moments collide with profound ones, and a growing sense of inevitability is frequently derailed by chance and unintended consequences. What pulls you into the story is not merely a desire to see what crazy thing happens next, but to see how the craziness is created by the ideas and responses of the characters to a growing series of personal and social crises. Mamatas builds anticipation even as he continues to unsettle the reader, subverting the desire for closure even as he builds the story to, not a climax, so much as a weary epiphany. It is a wild ride, but also a thoughtful one.
There are a few points where the novel loses some momentum. A few epistolary chapters that seem to be there to give the reader a different view of the proceedings did not, for me, add to the novel. They could be moments where the reader catches their breath and can process what is going on, but they dulled the sharpness of the narrative and took away from power of the spiders' voice to ensnare you. In the last few chapters I felt a few instances of confusion from what appear to be a few typos (characters' names switched, it seems) that make you stop to wonder who's really talking and disrupt the narrative. I briefly considered that it might be a metatextual trick, but that is not in line with the combination of fine writing and carefully-constructed narrative that characterizes this book. Mamatas is an excellent writer who takes chances with his work, but takes them thoughtfully and delivers them for maximum effect, to deliver his ideas with precision and strength, so that his novel leaves a lasting impression not just of pleasure, but of a reflective questioning about what we think we are capable of, and what really constrains and directs us though our daily lives.