I like weird, but I don’t like weird for weirdness’ sake. Without a relative baseline, stories that aim for irrepressibly strange can turn out surprisingly dull. This is probably why I’m resistant to steampunk and bizarro horror. Whether it’s slapping extra gears on old technology or grafting talking vaginas onto deli meat, weirdness requires discipline to elicit a response.
It’s no surprise that Dial H, China Mieville’s weird comic book series, lacks that discipline. Book one is a stream of consciousness mess told from the point of view of multiple consciousnesses. Mieville takes a retro comic’s hacky premise (a magic telephone booth allows ordinary people to channel random superhero personas) as carte blanche to toss an onslaught of half-baked ideas onto the page and pass it off as camp. For every Captain Lachrymose there’s a Bumper Carla or Cock-A-Hoop– strained jokes on rejected superhero ideas that don’t pass muster in a post-Venture Bros. age.The series feels less like a reboot of a cheesy DC title than an imitation of Axe Cop. And as someone who is resistant to both the charms of children and their nonsensical storytelling techniques, seeing a pretentious fantasy author indulge in the same self-satisfied milieu is disheartening.
The first two volumes of The Manhattan Projects at least take a somewhat more structured approach to weirdness. Writer Jonathan Hickman and artist Nick Pitarra use flashbacks, short chapter breaks, and an alternating color palette to lend a staid pace to their retelling of Robert Oppenheimer’s career. Oppenheimer, of course, being the father of the atomic bomb, and in this version, a cannibal with literal designs on becoming death, the destroyer of worlds.
But as the cast of characters grows, The Manhattan Projects wears out its welcome. Hickman teams Oppenheimer with an evil parallel universe Einstein, the radioactive skull of Harry Daghlian, and a cybernetically-enhanced Wernher Von Braun, and that’s just for starters. By the time he reveals that the series actually documents a secret history, not a wacky alternate one, the sheer absurdity that preceded it was too overwhelming for me to appreciate the distinction.
The flipside to presenting readers with nothing to relate to is expecting them to care too much, an assumption that derails James Smythe’s novel The Explorer early on. In the opening chapters, Cormac Easton, a reporter on the first manned space mission in decades, finds himself the sole remaining crew member as a series of accidents (and one bout of space madness) claim the lives of the scientists aboard. The pages leading up to the ship running out of fuel and disabling life support are terrifying. But then Cormac finds himself inexplicably back at the beginning of the voyage, where he experiences the disaster again as an outside observer.
From here on out, the book wallows in depression. Smythe overindulges in flashbacks to Cormac’s last years on Earth and drags out what we already know to be inevitable. Observing the crew from hiding places throughout the ship, Cormac discovers not only how sad his fellow crewmembers are, but his own culpability in their misery and eventual deaths. It takes him awhile, but he recovers repressed memories of his wife’s suicide as well. Given the circumstances, it seems to me that Cormac was the wrong journalist to send into space. But since it all turns out to be an elaborate sacrificial stunt, I guess that doesn’t matter to whoever’s fronting the bill.
A superior novel with a similar setup, the team of scientists in Blindsight leave Earth to discover the source of an incursion of alien artifacts. Like a more balanced approach to The Manhattan Projects, or a smarter version of Michael Chrichton’s Sphere, author Peter Watts populates his ship with a group of misfits each designed for a singular purpose. And I do mean designed. Most of them suffer from some sort of personality disorder which, augmented with future technology, makes them adept for a particular aspect of the mission– including the vampire reconstituted from an extinct species of predator from the early days of man.
Watts blends these disparate characters into an hard sci-fi novel that does its best to upend Hollywood haunted spaceship tropes. He does so with an unforgiving vocabulary, and even the requisite melancholy Earth flashbacks are more about world-building than providing generic emotional hooks. Though the book eventually sags under the limitations of its own premise, it comes back with a strong ending and an excellent series of appendices. For all the scientific advances that couldn’t be explained without breaking up the narrative, Watts provides short essays on each at the end of the book. It’s a nice touch that I wish more speculative fiction authors would imitate.
Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Children Of No One, a story that hits every weird note absolutely right. Nicole Cushing’s novella is a perfect blend of dark fantasy and modern horror. Focused on an art enthusiast with a taste for the perverse and an underground provocateur who creates invitation-only installations of human misery, there’s more to the story than just shock value. The tension in Children of No One derives from not knowing what type of horror story it will turn out to be. Its focus on child neglect and abandonment put it in Jack Ketchum territory, but the language and character motivations are clearly inspired by Lovecraft. Not knowing which side the shoe is going to drop on makes Children of No One an exercise in dread. It’s unexpected, scary, and sublimely strange.