Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Written Word Wed. - If You Thought I Was Phoning It In Before!

Yesterday, while trying to figure out what I wanted to do for today's post, since the Primary Obsession has sort of derailed any of my plans to get any books read, I came up with something which is incredibly easy for me and potentially interesting for you: posting one of my reviews from my Genre Fiction class!

The basic idea of the class was to give us a good background of the most popular form of genre fiction so that we future librarians would be more informed when helping patrons. The class was a good excuse to read some books I'd been wanting to read for a while (Left Behind, Bourne Identity), and did provide some interesting background on the history and evolution of the different genres.

One of the big ideas the professor tried to get through was that we didn't need to enjoy all of the genres in order to recommend them; if a patron comes up and tells you that he or she likes splatterpunk novels, then a librarian should be able to point him or her in the right direction, regardless of whether the librarian can stomach the gory things or not. This was a concept some of my classmates seemed to miss out on; there was an ultra-anti-religious person who read Left Behind and basically posted in her discussion that she would never recommend anything that blatantly "preachy" to anyone, no matter what they asked for. On the other end of the spectrum was an ultra-religious person who read Firestarter and said (completely without irony or humor, I'm afraid) that because of the fact it described a child in danger she thought the book should be burned . . . just the words you want to hear from a librarian, eh? Good thing she didn't read a John Saul novel, she probably would have had an aneurism, his novels are nothing but kids in peril . . . but I digress.

The following is my brief report on my selection for the Mystery genre. Each report was supposed to include

  • a summary of the plot that could contain spoilers galore
  • a discussion of how the work qualifies as part the larger genre and what, if any, sub-genre it belongs to
  • my general thoughts on the work, ranging from critical examination to gut emotional response
  • who I would and wouldn't recommend it to, including any cross-over potential (i.e. a fantasy that would appeal to romance fans, a thriller that would appeal to Christian fiction fans, etc.)

McCrumb, Sharyn. Bimbos of the Death Sun. New York; Ballantine Books, 1997. ISBN: 0-345-41215-X

Sharyn McCrumb’s Bimbos of the Death Sun is an amateur detective story set in the off-beat world of Science Fiction fandom. The title is taken from the title of a book written by the detective character, engineering professor turned amateur SF author James Mega (better known to the SF fans by his pen name, Jay Omega). Although embarrassed by the lurid title and sexist cover art foisted upon his novel by his publishers, Omega agrees to attend a SF convention to promote his book. Accompanied by his girlfriend, professor of SF literature and reformed convention geek Marion Farley, Omega struggles to adapt to the swirl of fens, filksingers, cos-players, and other eclectic individuals attending the SF convention. Especially daunting to the neophyte is the stress of having to deal with the convention’s guest of honor, Fantasy author Appin Dungannon, a man just as famous for his horrendous temper tantrums and rabid hostility towards his fans as for his most popular character, Tratyn Runewind. And after Dungannon is found murdered in his hotel room, Omega is drawn into helping solve the case, first for his technical expertise, and later out of sheer curiosity. Of course, when the murder victim is one of the most reviled figures in the industry, the whole convention is suspect.

Or at least, that’s the theory that the blurbs want you to believe. But in truth, the number of viable suspects in the novel is exceedingly slim. In fact, for a mystery (and an award winning mystery at that), there wasn’t much of anything mysterious about it. Yes, the book fits the basic structure of an amateur detective story (crime followed by reluctant detective put into position to solve case followed by criminal brought to justice), but the mystery aspect is handled clumsily. For example, the murder sequence contains a description of the murderer, one which is vague enough to leave initial hope that its likeness to a prominent character is merely a red herring . . . a hope which is sadly vanquished by the big reveal at the end. The killer’s motive is specious, and the Omega’s detecting skills rely more on following a hunch and surprising the killer into confessing than anything else.

Still, despite my disappointment in the actual mystery aspect of the novel, I found it an enjoyable read. McCrumb populates the book with quirky and entertaining characters. True, many of the convention goers are little more than caricatures of the stereotypical SF fans, but the main characters are fleshed out well enough to make up for any misgiving about the occasional stereotypical character. Plus, even the stereotypical characters are used to good comic effect. Omega and Marion are very likeable characters, and their playful banter with each other was a large factor in my enjoyment. McCrumb does occasionally spend quite a bit of time on tertiary characters for no discernable reason other than a desire to explore a humorous idea. This tendency to focus on character over plot development might be frustrating to some, but it was one of the factors which endeared the book to me.

I think this book would appeal to fans of SF and Fantasy, with the caveat that they have either thick skins or a sense of humor about themselves, since much of the observational humor in the book is at the expense of the SF fans, who are often painted in an unflattering light. I know there were times where I, as a long time SF fan, felt frustrated at a character’s generalizations about fandom, but in the end I felt that the amount of work put into depicting the world of SF fandom showed a form of respect for the community. The book would also appeal to fans of quirky characters and off-beat situations. It’s an overall gentle read, with the main murder happening off-stage. Although the sequence where the criminal meets his maker does get described in the text, it didn’t strike me as particularly graphic. I would not recommend this to mystery readers who enjoy procedurals, or complicated mysteries full of twists and turns. McCrumb’s novel is a relatively straightforward, and occasionally predictable, tale, but one which I found to be an easy and enjoyable read nonetheless. I’m looking forward to reading the sequel, Zombies of the Gene Pool.

Cap'n Neurotic Addendum: I did indeed read Zombies of the Gene Pool and found it to be nowhere near as entertaining as the first book. I think the mystery aspects were slightly better, but the overall setting wasn't as fun.


Flunky lover said...

That was reaaly good. Have you ever thought about doing book reviews for a living?

Cap'n Neurotic said...

Thank you. I got similar comments from some of my classmates at the time; to be honest, while it sounds like something that I would enjoy doing, the thought of pursuing that as a career had never crossed my mind before.