Monday, April 12, 2010

Book Review: The Companion by Nicholas Martin

Here it is, the promised review. Sorry, what with HBVK coming out this year, my recent move and all that I've had a lot going on. I actually bought this book a month or so ago - you may have seen my ugly mug on my Facebook page showing I'd got my copy. I still have no idea why the hell I did that but it was fun. Anyway, while I'm warming up for the review, in the interest of full disclosure, I'm not exactly close friends with Nick but I knew him back in my Charlottesville days. For a while we were part of a rag-tag group of underground writers who'd decided to assault the Internet, pres butan, win gaem back in the day through giving away our writing for free under Creative Commons licenses. That didn't go so well but it was damn fun while it lasted and I always liked his writing. We were like Kelly's Heroes except we didn't get the Nazi gold at the end, with me as Don Rickles and him as Donald Sutherland.

So I saw The Companion when it was just a story fragment (as I recall) under a different title - it never made it to the Internet, which is good because it was story worth telling AND selling. So I was happy to see that suddenly ol' "Negative Waves" Nick had put out this book and bought a copy.

The basic idea is simple - at some point in the near future, a company figures out how to produce simulacra of women, plant-based lifeforms with an AI computer chip driving them, that men (or I guess women who swing that way) can buy and use as virtual girlfriends, sex toys, or whatever. Our hero, Aaron, works for ArcadiaCorp, the company that makes their "Date in a Can", doing marketing for their various products, and as such he's one of the lucky bastards who gets to test-drive the new android, custom-designed to his specifications (a neat bit of stealth characterization). Aaron is a sensitive sort and doesn't really want to - to be honest if I worked for a rubber vagina company I wouldn't really want to test the product either - but a combination of pressure from his pal in the R&D department and his own loneliness eventually push him to it. One drunken evening he throws the can in the bathtub as per the directions and forgets about it.

And after a hectic day at work, he comes home ...

It stood up from the floor and the blanket fell away. It stood there in the room, shapely, appealing. My mouth watered like a hungry man at a buffet. I shook my head, reminded myself that it was a product. A toy to be tested, put through the wringer.
Soon he finds that the thing is too real. He gives the android a name - Mathilda - and starts thinking of it as a real person. As Aaron sinks deeper into this fantasy made reality, the product line is launched and it gets out into society and starts changing the world in ways that are not so great.

The main theme of the book seems to me that Aaron is a man out of time, left behind by the future. He's surrounded by people who are selfish, banal, arrogant and base, while he is almost Victorian in his (not always successful) pursuit of moral virtue. If this makes him sound like a prig, don't take it like that; really Aaron is a normal guy and it's the world around him that is full of assholes. Aaron grapples with questions of ethics and humanity and people around him tell him to just relax and enjoy the debauchery.

See, any technology in and of itself has no moral character whatsoever - but it does reflect almost perfectly the character of the person using it. While the world around him gets their "Companions" and indulges themselves in acts of sadism, licentiousness and other unspeakable acts, Aaron really takes the slogan for the android one step further - it's a Wife in a Can, not a Date, to him. Mathilda asks him how work was when he comes home, cooks him dinner, rubs his shoulders, listens appreciatively to his concerns and can even make conversation.

I kept waiting for Aaron's shocking revelation that his robot wife is more real than most women in this fallen world, but I guess that was left to the reader - and that's okay, it's fun when you grasp things like that, that are never spelled out in the text, that make reading fun.

I don't know that I would really call this a horror book, unless you count the horror one feels at seeing this world, so close to our own, and seeing how wrong it all is. Really what Nick has written here is a modern Gothic novel (and I mean that in the old sense of the word in case that wasn't clear). It is Man versus Society and also versus Himself. As the rational and the animal sides of Aaron conflict, the rest of the world doesn't even take the field.

The scene where Mathilda "dies" for the first time - and that's not a spoiler, by the way, that's planned obsolescence and you know it's coming early on - is haunting and touching. Like all dreams, Aaron's woman turns to dust, but not before giving him a final admonition to go buy her another body. It's characteristic of Martin's work that I've seen before, and he has really come into his own now - powerful imagery that is not over-written. It's manly writing throughout. Aaron is not an action hero, but neither is he an empty shirt. These are real questions and even though he's more forced to confront them than he is actively taking them on, Aaron doesn't really run away. This to me is the essence of manly writing. Your hero does not have to be Doc Savage, he just has to not be Patrick Bateman.

Throughout Martin refuses to make easy characterizations (for the most part - Aaron's boss is a shade too "American Beauty" but not as bad as that makes it sound). He correctly sees that corporations are not evil, just as they are not good - they are exploitative, morally neutral as a function of their being economic entities. Hence it doesn't really matter to ArcadiaCorp if the Companion device is good or bad for society, or what people do with it - they just want to make money. It would have been way too easy to have this be some kind of latter-day LeCarre novel where Aaron as protagonist takes down the evil corporation run by a Dick Cheney lookalike. That makes the questions Martin raises too easy to answer and he clearly does not want them to be easy questions.

The illustrations by Meghan C. Hakes (a correctly spelled "Meghan"! My wife would love that, don't get her started on that subject) aid Martin's aim throughout, as is an illustrator's job, giving the reader something visual to help focus their attention and excite their imagination. Some of the illustration quality is a bit sub-par, a tad high-school-comic-book. But mostly they benefit from a sense of space and psychology - the comic-book panels throughout the book work well, especially from the first "death" scene. The cover by Tom Moran is brilliant and catches the eye well, I'll admit it swayed me on buying the book.

Overall this was an enjoyable read. Martin has written what is not an action book, not a horror book, but what is really a sci-fi book in the classic "New Science Fiction" style of the 60s, like Bradbury (thrown around too much but accurate here in my opinion) or Bester, and keeps it moving and entertaining without letting it get lost in the weeds (like, say, Dick). As far as the horror angle goes, people do some horrible things to the androids and of course there is lots of sexual depravity, fortunately none of it gratuitous. It rocketed to the top of Horror Mall's bestsellers list the month it came out and I can see why. In fact, it was a bestseller for last month as well. Now either the Mall is selling 5 books a month - or this book is good. PROTIP: It ain't the former. This is the real stuff.

Part of Sideshow Press's "First Cut" series showcasing new authors. If this is what they got - they're gonna need more books.

Get your copy at the Horror Mall. I think they still have paperbacks, $18 is not bad for this.
Or, if you're a high roller, get the sexy (I've seen the pics) leatherbound limited edition.
And sign up to be a fan of Nick on Facebook.

And maybe you shouldn't call him "Nick", but I do because I can and because I am an asshole who has to give everybody nicknames.

No comments:

Post a Comment