Sensation, Nick Mamatas

PM Press, 2011, 198 pages, $14.95 tp, ISBN 978-1-60486-354-3

One of the things I most enjoy about Nick Mamatas’s writing (fiction and non-fiction alike, including his blog) is a sense of being challenged.  He sees outside mainstream conventions, whether you’re discussing genre fiction protocols, market expectations, political beliefs or social niceties.  To faithful Mamatas readers, Sensation reads exactly like the kind of novel that only he could write, which is to say something different from anything else he’s done so far.

A plot summary does no service to the book: If you need plot, Sensation is loosely about an age-old war between spiders and wasps in which humans are dupes, and a woman leaving her lover to become the vanguard of a radical yet indefinable political movement.

But frankly, Sensation is about other things than plot.  It’s about political revolutions and internet memes.  It’s about relationships and the way people hurt each other.  It’s about first-person narration from the viewpoint of a vastly-distributed hive intelligence.  More than anything else, it’s about prose and how it doesn’t necessarily have to be a support for plot in order to be interesting.

As an old-school genre reader, I’m not typically a good public for that kind of experiment.  But Sensation somehow works, in part because it’s a rollercoaster of good bits and in other parts because it goes fishing so widely for its references.  Like one of the good-old spoof comedies in which the plot served as a clothesline for the choice gags, Sensation goes from one striking piece of writing to the other, using just enough plot to make sure it still hangs together.

But even as an old-school genre reader, I also found plenty to like in Mamatas’s display of ideas, set-pieces, form-shifting and other kind of narrative experimentation.  Sensation’s straight-ahead base narrative occasionally breaks into text messaging, interview transcripts, news articles, screenshots, typographic play and other unconventional ways to tell a story.  Mamatas is able to write fluently about matters technical, political and emotional: detailing the breakup of a relationship in one passage, explaining how to marginalize dissent in another, or describing how the World Wide Web is taken down in a third.  Deeply steeped into the pop culture references of the net-savvy, Sensation does feel like a novel that couldn’t have been written ten years ago or ten years from now.

Not being a regular reader of even mildly experimental fiction, I suspect that Sensation isn’t all that daring: It’s still understandable, for one thing, it’s remarkably funny at times, and thanks to its core premise there’s no denying that it’s a Science Fiction novel.  Not that I’m complaining –in fact, I think that by setting Sensation in a middle ground between genre and experimental fiction, he’ll be able to grab readers from both spheres without scaring them with too much weirdness.  (I suspect that the hard sell won’t be the SF to the experimental readers, but the experimentation to the SF readers.)

But as funny, insightful or clever as Sensation can be, it’s not exactly a comfort read, or something to mindlessly whittle away the minutes spent on the morning commute.  I found myself reflecting on my own assumptions and biases along the way, recognizing myself in the duped masses that Mamatas describes in Sensation’s margins.  It’s engaging, smarter than its average reader and immensely self-confident in its willingness to dare audiences to keep up.  (Kind of like Mamatas himself, actually.)  Could it have been stronger in its plotting, easier to follow or less flashy in its tweaking of conventions?  Sure, but then we wouldn’t have the novel that Sensation wants to be.

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