You Might Sleep...
by Nick Mamatas
(Prime Books, 2009)
A conversation in the mid-Nineties with an uncle more enamored with science fiction than fact yielded this gem: "The Internet will allow anyone to get his work read. Publishing will change forever." Being a literary purist with a handful of accomplishments and a perverse fondness for manual typewriters, I dismissed his prediction as naive and the web as a passing fad. And, sure enough, the slew of small "webzines" that emerged in a burst of optimism foundered soon afterwards on the hard-edged imperatives of publishing (canny editors, pro-level product and, above all, generous financing). The inaugural age of the digital press ended as swiftly and ignobly as it began. A new paradigm emerged. And I bought a computer.
Necessity is the mother of invention. Survival is an outgrowth of adaptation. And success in the arts demands distinguishing one's self from the pack regardless of technology and times. The "second era" of digital magazines has produced a virtual news-rack of publications, a good many devoted (not surprisingly) to speculative fiction. From this generation of writers (many unfamiliar with the burden of manila envelopes and photocopies) have emerged new voices. Among the most distinctive is Nick Mamatas.
A cursory glance at Nick's bibliography provides a topographical survey of web-based publications. Mamatas' work has appeared in every virtual spec-zine that matters (and more than a few that don't). His stories have enthralled readers of Strange Horizons and Heliotrope alike, jumped the genre-line to ChiZine and Brain Harvest and straddled the digital divide separating the web from more traditional paper and ink venues like Weird Tales. Nick's deft hand with a story earned him a two-year stint as Fiction Editor of the prestigious Clarkesworld Magazine (a 2009 Hugo nominee). What emerges clearly from his work (aside from the fact that he has licked more than a few envelopes in his time) is the truism that excellence in fiction transcends medium. And with the collection of his gold-medal pieces in the new soft-cover collection You Might Sleep... (Prime Books, 2009), the web-fic revolution returns to print with satisfying results...and a more than faint echo of the hard-boiled writers of another era.
To term Nick's work "unsentimental" is euphemistic. His prose strikes with the sudden impact of a crowbar to the nose. Undead rock musicians, Thelemic serial killers, Catholic saints reincarnated as bloggers, feminist academics with a yen for kinky sex: these are but a few of the night-blooming wonders flowering in the garden of Mamatas' imagination. The demands of spec-fic fans in the Twenty-First century can be daunting, fueled by the legacies of cyber- and steampunk and the noir-opera standards set by Battlestar Galactica and Watchmen. But if You Might Sleep... is any indication, Mamatas is more than up to the challenge.
Imagine Lewis Carroll with an ISP, Mishima hammering out his death poem on a Blackberry or Harlan Ellison hyped up on crystal meth and you may just begin to glimpse the world of Mamatas.
The collection opens with a canard: a reprint from Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet that serves as a back-handed comment on the throw-away nature of post-modern literature. The story (the title of which is longer than the piece itself) is a shaggy-dog haiku to Samuel Beckett that unfolds like an origami oyster. It leaves one with an uncomfortable simmering sensation in the belly. Like J.D. Salinger (an obvious but unacknowledged influence), Mamatas seeks to touch the reader without becoming his friend. And for this we must be grateful, as friends rarely tell one another the truth.
If cynicism is the grace-note of You Might Sleep..., then hard truths are its coda. "All That's Left After the Big One Drops" blends a more-or-less run-of-the-mill nuclear holocaust tale with the obligatory adolescent individuation trek. The story's protagonist, like many of Mamatas', is a loser: a pudgy unpopular boy who eats cockroaches. Just as Our Hero is beginning to successfully negotiate the treacherous shoals of middle school and gain a measure of social acceptance, the Early Warning claxon sounds and he is bundled into a communal bomb shelter by his enigmatic and dysfunctional father (not unlike the one who overshadows Under My Roof, Mamatas' most recent book-length effort). As Armageddon rains down on the outside world, Harold realizes that his dad—
"Build a Trebuchet" picks up, thematically, where "Big One" leaves off. The characters may be older mentally and chronologically, but only slightly so. Huddled in the Dhalgren-esque watering-hole of a ruined city (remember Teddy's?), they one-up, lie to, and seduce one another through the uncharted seas of early adulthood while pirates (real ones in this case) terrorize the North Shore in yachts renovated to bristle with firepower. Amusing? Quite. And yet while Mamatas may be content to play the buffoon, he is nobody's fool. In an age of disposable water bottles, disposable allegiances, disposable ethics, Mamatas is keenly aware of the disposable nature of identity. His pirates are college grads whose hapless yuppie victims cling to their shore-bound timeshares in the aftermath of an all-purpose apocalypse and whose enemies eventually wise up to the true nature of their dilemma. "Trebuchet" ends not with some cataclysmic battle, but with everyone simply outgrowing their self-built personas and moving on to adulthood. Only the narrator, an artist (piano player, in this case) remains unchanged. A comment on the primacy of art? No, think again.
Where Kipling dubbed his shorter pieces "just so stories," Mamatas terms his "what the fuck?" stories. This attitude allows him to surf well-worn sci-fi tropes with cynical ease and thus dispense with paragraphs of onerous exposition—
"Withdraw, Withdraw!" may be the most serious piece in the collection. But as ever, our launch-point is the absurd. The narrator is involved with a feminist academic named Liz whose research consists of immersing herself in a world of porn and weird sex. She works out nude on a ThighMaster while her boyfriend films her and shouts "Faster, faster!" in a vaguely European voice—
Amusement is central to You Might Sleep..., but it is not the gentle chuckle of the sage. Mamatas is quite happy to point and laugh with wicked glee and this may be the source of that uncomfortable simmering sensation to which I alluded earlier. There is an underlying nastiness to much of the work, and one wonders if this is not the footnote of a fevered self-consciousness. Despite his tremendous gifts, Mamatas dares little. One wonders how he would handle more profound materials, how his narrative sorcery might encompass (for example) bereavement, real tragedy or loss of self through enlightenment or love. "What the fuck" is only sufficient to carry a writer so far, and Nick Mamatas has ridden this wave to an impressive conclusion. He has finished strong and is due a certain level of well-deserved approbation. But whether he successfully negotiates the step to the next (and more mature) phase of his career has yet to be seen. This reviewer waits with cautious anticipation.