Saturday 20 February 2010

Book Review: Sleepless by Charlie Huston

[Buy this book on Amazon
in the UK / in the US]

"Parker T. Haas is a straight-arrow LAPD cop whose cast-iron sense of right and wrong has made him a lone wolf on the force. But when a plague of sleeplessness attacks Los Angeles and the world beyond, his philosophical certainties are tested to destruction. Sent undercover to pose as a dealer, Haas is on the trail of a black-market drug that is the one thing providing relief to the sleepless - if you can penetrate the arcane code of its mysterious supplier.

"But as Haas negotiates the increasingly chaotic and dangerous world of a city slowly going mad, he crosses the path of an equally fanatical a-moralist, a hired killer whose extreme sense of aesthetic perfection admits not the slightest humanity. But as their collision course accelerates (two men: one of the old world; one of the newly emerging), Parker must decide not only where the moral centre is located in this frightening new landscape, but also how he is going to save his wife Rose - herself a victim of the disease - and their newborn baby, whose uncertain future is coming into being before their eyes."

In the year 2010, humanity has been brought to its knees by a global pandemic of killer insomnia. At least one in ten people are infected by the SLR prion, and though the United States has suffered less than the rest of the world, the people of Los Angeles are in full-on revolt mode. At the outset of Sleepless, a New America Jihadist suicide bombs La Cienega as idealistic policeman Parker Haas watches on, horrified yet helpless, while in the distance, from the comfort of an Ikea sling-chair in his luxury apartment, an aging, cool-cat assassin cracks open a bottle of vintage Rhone to watch "that small, expensive fragment of the city burn."

Sleepless is the first Charlie Huston novel The Speculative Scotsman has read, though if it's any indication of the caliber of this author's talent, it certainly won't be the last. His prose is immediately impactful, his storytelling clipped, concise and utterly cutting. From a high concept equal parts paranoid sci-fi and hard-boiled crime thriller he seamlessly weaves a disarmingly intimate tale of two individuals driven by motivations on opposite ends of the spectrum. Park is an undercover detective with a wife ravaged by SLR who demands justice from an unjust world; Jasper, meanwhile, is a ruthless machine of a man, a cold-blooded killer who cares not at all whether his targets deserve the final judgment he metes out on demand.

As the plague of sleeplessness decimates an increasingly chaotic Los Angeles, Park and Jasper are drawn together by circumstances beyond either's control, moving always towards a tremendous last act that is both devastating and decisive. The journey there is not always easy, nor ever anything less than nightmarishly bleak, but it is one well worth making. Huston's voice is direct yet prone to fascinating diatribe; detached, yet deeply, inextricably involved in the day-to-day existence of Park and Jasper as they make their way through a city fallen increasingly to anarchy. The action is weighty, the philosophy provocative, the setting appropriately suffocating.

Sleepless is a novel in large part concerned with technology, with the march of progress and the devastation our inexorable forward motion leaves in its wake. "When our society is excavated," Huston observes, "our data will be our relics," and so it is that when Haas picks up the trail of DR33M3R - the gold-dust drug which represents the only reprieve SLR sufferers can hope for - he lays the foundation of his investigation with a read through the appropriate Wikipedia pages. Furthermore, the narrative pivots around the indecipherable contents of a portable USB key, and Chasm Tide, an MMORPG which bears more than a passing resemblance to World of Warcraft that the sleepless have taken to like moths to a flame.

Thusly, there's lingo everywhere. You'll be able to follow some, but not likely all of it: drugs, guns and gangs; philosophy, pop culture, video games and chemistry. Huston's knowledge base is incredibly wide-ranging, and though some of his terminology isn't quite right, he never misses the mark by far. Sleepless is astonishingly authentic in nearly every sense, prescient in the mode of a genetically modified super-species of Cory Doctorow's Little Brother and packed full of involved asides that lay waste to government, enterprise and individual endeavour. Huston has taken a world very much our own and turned it on its head, and in so doing, he demonstrates how close we truly are to a nightmare of earth-shattering proportions.

But there's more to Sleepless than an incisive, hellish vision of the future entire. Park's strained relationship with his wife Rose and their newborn baby girl is a heartbreaking tale of hope against the odds. Readers will only truly come to know Rose through Park's fragmented recollections of her; in the middle stages of SLR, she has lost her grip on the present, frequently repeating conversations from years ago and confusing reality with imagination. Park loves poor Rose dearly - his every effort is, in a way, a lovestruck fool's errand under the pretense that he can somehow save the love of his life if only he can break his impossible case.

Sleepless is a stark and startling novel in which nothing is sacred, a lucid dream of an awful future that threatens to impinge upon a present that is but a hair's breadth from our own. Yet it is a league more powerful than other such doom-saying tales because its woeful suppositions are tempered always by the touching, tragic plight Park and Rose are forced to face down within the four walls of their own home. Huston balances the two sides of his first non-sequential narrative with unflinching honesty and a grace bordering on the ineffable, and though Sleepless will leave you emotionally exhausted and wishing the world would wake up and smell the proverbial coffee, the experience is certainly one worth passing up a few nights' shut-eye for - after all, you can always sleep another night.

Can't you?


by Charlie Huston
March 2010, Gollancz: London

[Buy this book on Amazon
in the UK / in the US]

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