… if stories about technologically-altered humans can be considered old-fashioned. And if it was actually good.
This review kind of got away from me. If you don’t want to read the whole thing, you should at least check out the excerpts. I highlighted them to make them easier to find.
I wanted to like this book. I really did. I pulled it off of the shelf at John’s house (and, um, accidentally stole it), and the blurb on the back hooked me. It seems that at some point in the future, the art of doll-making has become a science, and the science of nanotechnology has become an art, and it’s pretty tough to tell dolls from people, sometimes.
The story opens with a guy on the run, a desperate dash for freedom, to be caught is to die. Ahead is the Mekong river, on the other side possible salvation. His pursuit, identical-twin killer hottie robots, are closing in. You can feel the tension, feel the fear. He’s almost home free, and then… he’s caught, agrees to go back, they don’t kill him, and the whole episode is filed under “always start your story with action.”
In this world, the greatest doll-maker of all time reaches so deeply into the esoteric world of quantum uncertainty that the result is more than human — and dangerous. Into this doll is built her creator’s deepest neuroses about the fairer sex. His creation has a few unexpected habits, like the desire to drink blood. In the process the doll passes nanomachines into the bitten one, and the victim’s female offspring will be rebuilt by the nanomachines until she herself is a doll, and no trace of humanity is left. They become Dead Girls. The vampire element is nicely soft-pedaled; the story focuses more on the tragedy of women created as objects, vessels to carry all of man’s fear and hatred. Men don’t come out looking too good in this story.
The dolls are a venereal disease. Parasites. When mankind is extinguished, the dolls will also die out. This turns the tale from a “man replaces himself” story to a “man finds an especially poetic way to exterminate himself” story. That’s a plus. The fleeting rise and fall of this other species, the dolls, adds to the poignancy. Intellectually the dolls know they should leave a few people uninfected. Unfortunately, even though their brains are machines, The dolls are a pretty emotional bunch.
With all that going for it, I wanted to like Dead Girls. It gets mired, at times, belaboring the fact that the dolls and their progeny are not truly alive, they are automata of incredible sophistication but in the end just machines. Most of them seem to accept this, and aren’t terribly bothered by dying. There are, however, exceptions, and one of those is Primavera. A question knocked about beneath the surface of the story is just what “alive” means, thought it is not addressed directly. But if the sincere wish not to die is a measure of sentient life, then Primavera (who has little regard for anyone else’s life) is most certainly alive herself.
Still, the book has its share of problems. For the first time ever while reading, I thought “Wow, I’ve got to remember this page for the review.” That’s not a good sign. Near the start I just had no idea what the hell was going on, and after a while the author cut me some slack and provided a badly contrived vehicle for filling in backstory. Dialog at the start is trying very hard to straddle the divide between speech by people who know full well what’s going on, but will be read by people with no idea. It’s not easy to do, and in Dead Girls, the writer doesn’t do a very good job of it.
The story is told in the first person by Primavera’s sidekick, himself not a terribly well-adjusted lad, the only (living) man infected by Primavera. Perhaps, in fact, it is he that makes Primavera unique; he has loved her since before her transformation, before the nanobots restructured her molecules. It is agreed by all that she is not able to love him back, but maybe… The narrative style can be over the top, but generally that’s OK if the story is written with an atmosphere of recollection, words carefully considered over time.
Then, suddenly, the story abruptly shifts to another point of view, also told in the first person. Umm… wha? This is all the more confusing because the voice doesn’t change. This isn’t narrator A faithfully recording what narrator B told him; there’s no sense of oral storytelling at all. It’s more like narrator B borrowed narrator A’s diary and wrote in the chapter. They have the same voice, like the two narrators are machines created in the same factory. Bugged the hell out of me.
The shift happened on page 111, a page that included this gem: “Each morning that summer the sun effervesced into my room like a champagne of lemonades.” No, context doesn’t make it better. He (not the usual ‘he’ but the suddenly-substituted ‘he’ of narrator B) was having a good summer. I’ll admit that if you ignore all meaning and just look at the sentence as a pile of pleasant words, that a certain glow is conveyed. But still…
It remains to be seen whether page 111 has taken me over a threshold, and changed the way I read. Will I now habitually note pages with especially outlandish language? Is that a bad thing?
Next on my memorized list of page numbers is 145, a page I fell asleep to twice (more due to circumstance, but still not a good sign), when our protagonists (including Primavera) are trapped inside Primavera’s mind. (Suddenly the doll’s cognitive ability can include multiple human minds as a subset. So much for assertions that the robot mind is inferior or fundamentally incompatible.) The dialog for the whole sequence is a series of quips and bon mots, but then there’s this:
This was dollspace. Machine consciousness. Impure, like all thought, but more massive than the consciousness of mankind, its constituents were psychons of iron, glass and steel, a neon-bright vortex of complex simplicity from which rose the aleatory music that so bewitched the world. Music that was solid, dimensional; music that was sinew, muscle, physique.
Actually, I’d like the last sentence in that excerpt, if it was referring to, say, Beethoven. It’s not, of course, and after the neon-bright vortex it was too late to rescue this paragraph. This was not the only mention of “complex simplicity”, an interesting idea lost in this simple complexity.
Finally, there was page 167, when Kito, herself a low-budget knockoff doll who seems uniquely imbued with a sense of self-preservation, has got the drop on people who are currently trying to zap her with energy weapons. Quips Kito in her pidgin English, “I wake up first. Take Duracell from gun.”…”Bad day for you when Smith and Wesson merge with Mattel…” That line right there almost redeemed the whole damn book. Almost. Someday I’m going to write a Dirty Harry across the 21st century movie and make Clint Eastwood say that line.
The book takes place in Southeast Asia, and it’s obvious the author knows the area well. (Well enough to convince me, anyway.) At the end there is death, and life, and a personal decision that may doom humanity. Good stuff. Then, right there at the bottom of this first-person narrative, the story closes with a tagline: “Nongkhai, 1991.” 1991? I thought the story was in the future… Oooohhh, that’s the real author breaking character, stepping out of voice just to tell us, “I was there, you know.” It’s a silly thing to do, but especially distracting in a first-person narrative when I imagine I’m reading someone’s diary or a personal account, which the narrator felt compelled to authenticate with a date. When the last two words of the story broke voice it was one last jab at my already-annoyed story-loving self.
I did not read the teaser for the sequel, Dead Boys.
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