There's a moment fairly early in Charlie Huston's Sleepless where it seems that the novel, a noir dystopia which takes place in an alternate 2010 in which civilization has been brought nearly to a halt by the rapid spread of lethal sleeplessness, might as well have been subtitled "abandon all hope of subtlety, ye who enter here." It comes when Jasper, an assassin who narrates large portions of the novel, tells of the early spread of the plague, a prion disease originally mistaken for bovine spongiform encephalopathy, otherwise known as Mad Cow Disease.
PETA and the SPCA lodged protests with the appropriate authorities, but public sentiment was against them. Which is not to say they were without allies. The team-up between animal rights activists and the Cattleman's Beef Board was one of the more amusing juxtapositions that heralded the rapid tilt of the world into a landscape that was less Dalí and more Hieronymus Bosch. As evidenced by the vision of vast herds of cattle being machine-gunned from above by helicopters, then coated in napalm and set ablaze. An inferno of beefs, not all of them dead. I summon for you the image of a wounded cow, running, in flames. (p. 76)
It's been less than fifteen years since Mad Cow swept Europe, leading to the destruction of millions of heads of cattle. A smaller outbreak in North America in 2004 precipitated the slaughter of thousands more. And yet somehow not a single machine gun, not a single canister of Napalm, were deployed. Noir, in all its shapes and forms, is driven by its insistence that it is showing us what the world is really like—that the polite, just, civilized world we believe in is a fantasy concealing nothing but cruelty and irredeemable corruption. It doesn't have to be a scrupulously realistic image—indeed, most noir sacrifices realism, to a smaller or greater extent, for the sake of style—but it does need to be plausible. Huston undermines the plausibility of his alternate present when he summons, through Jasper, that ludicrously overblown image of the burning cow, which stands in such stark opposition to what we know of real, recent history. Instead of grimly unsentimental, this choice of imagery makes the novel seem self-aggrandizing, as though it were desperately grasping at coolness.
The same sense of desperation permeates Huston's construction of his characters, each of whom strives to be more badass than any other badass ever to tread a page. So the novel's protagonist, LAPD officer Parker Haas, is not simply the one honest cop in a police force grown savage, greedy, and brutal, but the Stanford-educated scion of a political dynasty with a Ph.D. in philosophy, who defied his diplomat father and joined the police in order to defend the weak and helpless. And Jasper isn't a simply an assassin, but a gay, sociopathic assassin who went into private work after being tortured by his former employers, the US government, and whose fascination with interior design verges on OCD. And the novel's villain isn't simply the aimless, amoral heir to a biotechnology fortune, but an obsessive gamer and internet troll, capable of "baiting even the most even-tempered of bloggers into raging email flareouts, rife with misspellings, often concluding with impotent physical threats" (p. 87). In its first hundred pages, there are many moments in which Sleepless comes off less like the grim portrait of a hopeless future it is clearly aiming at, and more like an unintentional comedy.
It is a delightful surprise, therefore, to find that as we get further into the novel, an unlooked-for subtlety begins creeping into its pages. Huston has written genre before—he is the author of ten detective novels, including the Joe Pitt series, whose protagonist is a vampire PI, as well as writing superhero comics—but like many authors making their first forays into science fiction, he chooses an apocalyptic scenario. The sleeplessness plague, which condemns its sufferers to a loss of sanity and self before a slow and agonizing death, has infected millions all over the planet, and brought an end to international trade, travel, and diplomacy. Some nations have crumbled, while others have emerged as militaristic powerhouses. The United States is in the latter camp, coasting on the remnants of its wealth and industry, securing its interests—mainly oil—through the indiscriminate use of military force. What's been lost in the process is democracy and the rule of law, and the Los Angeles that Sleepless takes place in is effectively a war zone, ruled by street gangs, a police force increasingly in league with these, and an ever-encroaching military presence. It's often dispiriting to see how much difficulty authors coming from outside of science fiction have in imagining the future as something different but viable, how quickly they plump for all-out destruction, eliminating all hope for the future. Coming as he does from a noir tradition, Huston at least has an excuse for his bleakness. What are dystopia and apocalypse, after all, but noir taken to its logical conclusion? The expertly handled noir tone of the novel helps to dispel the initial sense that here is a writer out of his depth, using unfamiliar tools. Huston knows how to draw a hopeless, crumbling world, and is skilled enough at this task that even his more egregious choices—the burning cow, the overstuffed characters—are, in the end, drowned out by the ambience of this alternate, plague-ravaged LA, and by Huston's multifacted portrait of a civilization making do, reinventing itself, finding new uses for old tools, all while sliding ever closer to annihilation.
What's most interesting about Sleepless is how very science-fictional those chapters of the novel that use Haas and Jasper as viewpoints on this society are. Haas is working undercover, posing as an upscale drug dealer, hoping to follow the trail of his affluent clients to the black market trade in Dreamer, the only drug capable of easing the sleepless's suffering. With demand massively outstripping supply, with millions of sufferers and their families desperate for relief, Haas's superiors fear that riots will ensue if the population comes to believe that its medicine has been appropriated by the rich and powerful. When his latest and most promising contact is murdered, Haas steals a storage drive from the crime scene, the information on which leads him right back to the source: Parsifal K. Afronzo Jr., known as Cager, only son of the owner of Afronzo New Day Pharmaceuticals, Dreamer's inventors and manufacturers. Jasper, meanwhile, is tasked by the leader of one of the more powerful LA gangs to retrieve the storage drive, and ends up following both Cager and Haas. Both characters thus end up hobnobbing with the affluent and tech-savvy, giving Huston the opportunity to use Wikipedia editing wars, RFID tags, and MMORPG gold and artifact farming as integral components of his characters' investigation, and to imagine new ways in which technology is transmuted by its users into a means of achieving human contact, and sometimes even art, as when Jasper visits a trendy gallery and finds what appears to be fan art for a multiplayer game:
The tagboard below the piece explained that I was looking at Kelvin Ripu, a level 87 Raider Prince, Last Commodore of the Orcan Fleet, Possessor of the Trident Perilous, Rider of Winds, Lord of Waves. It explained further that Kelvin was the creation of "gamer/artist" Kevin Puri, a twenty-seven-year-old call-center team manager in Mumbai. Kevin had been "crafting" Kelvin for five years. The piece was composed of Kevin Puri's handwritten and signed account of Kelvin's greatest accomplishments within Chasm Tide, his own drawing of the character, digitally preserved highlights of Kelvin in action, and the character itself, password, account number, the entire long string of 1s and 0s that it was knitted from, preserved in the thumb drive. All other traces of Kelvin Ripu, I was assured by the description, had been erased from the Chasm Tide mainframe and Kevin Puri's own desktop and backup hard drive.
The art object itself had been conceived and assembled by Shadrach, best known for the street and performance art he executed within Chasm Tide. (p. 169)
In passages such as these, in others in which Haas visits Cager's RPG-inspired nightclub and is invited into his inner sanctum, where a cabal of sleepless gamers, who "do things in there, twist the whole Chasm, make moves that shouldn't be possible" (p. 145) play relentlessly to an appreciative audience, and perhaps most of all in the novel's fascination with mass-produced objects, from Jasper's designer furniture and weaponry to the clothes worn by visitors to Cager's club to the consumer electronics sported by everyone, Sleepless puts one very much in mind of the later output of William Gibson. In novels like Pattern Recognition, Spook Country, and this year's Zero History, Gibson argues that there is nothing so futuristic, so SFnal, as the present, that new forms of communication, new avenues for consumption, new methods of manufacture, are transforming our society on every level, and with it our understanding of art, culture, and what it means to be human. Sleepless seems very much of this mind, and reads, in certain places, like what I imagine Gibson would produce if he ever decided to set a noir mystery in his futuristic present. Such passages neatly circumvent outsider SF's tendency to flounder when faced with the task of futuristic invention. Using only existing, real-world components and his own prodigious gift for alienating style, Huston crafts a vision of an alternate present that is both coherent and exciting, familiar and wrongfooting. It is perhaps no coincidence that these chapters most downplay the upcoming doom of humanity. It is impossible to believe, reading them, that civilization is not vibrant and vigorous, that it won't discover some way to evolve past this crisis. Such, however, is not the thrust of the novel.
Instead, Sleepless argues, this repurposing of technology—the use of MMORPGs as meeting places for the sleepless and as an alternate economy, the charting of the plague's progress through CraigsList ads (one of which offers, in a slightly unworthy twist on Hemmingway, "one king size bed—Hardly used." [p. 103])—represents society's death throes, its desperate attempt, as Cager explains to Haas when he justifies funding his sleepless games with the sale of Dreamer, to leave something of itself behind, even if it's only characters in a game (though why a self-professed technophile would be unaware of the alarmingly short half-life of electronic storage media is never explained). Haas moves through all these venues with a sense of increasing despair, and with the increasing realization that he can't live in the world that the people around him are preparing to usher in. Deeply committed to principles of uncompromising, unbending justice, and anguished by the suffering of his sleepless wife Rose and his crushing responsibility for their young daughter Omaha, Haas is desperate to prove that the sleeplessness plague is not a catastrophe but a crime, that there is a responsible party whom he can arrest and that that arrest will, somehow, bring the old world back.
What makes Sleepless special, and undermines the piled-on clichés that make up Haas's personality in the novel's early chapters, is that as the novel draws on it slowly disassociates from his rigid beliefs in justice and right and wrong. They come to seem more and more like a willful self-deception, an unwillingness to accept reality and the changes he needs to make in his life in order to survive and protect his daughter. Huston knows that anyone reading a novel of this stripe will expect Afronzo New Day Pharmaceuticals to be responsible for the sleeplessness plague, and when Haas confronts Cager's father in the requisite scene in which the detective narrates the crime to his prime suspect, he lists such an accusation as a matter of course even though he's uncovered not a shred of evidence that even suggests it. The truth, however, turns out to be more complicated, and Haas's inability to grasp it in terms that don't boil down to a crime—which it is only in the sense that anthropogenic climate change is a crime—further distances him from the reader. It's typical for the noir hero to righteously self-immolate in a doomed effort to bring the truth to light, but when Haas does so, there's something almost pathetic, a failure of character, about it.
Sleepless falters a little in its ending, which spends too much time with Jasper—more specifically, too much time in which Jasper kills many skilled and ruthless assassins in equally skilled, ruthless, and most of all exhaustively described ways—and more importantly, doesn't quite know how to conclude its story. It's here that Huston's inexperience writing science fiction betrays him. He doesn't seem to know how to describe the future that Omaha is going to grow up in, a world that is fundamentally different from our own, but is also unwilling to end the novel with total annihilation. So the story's conclusion lacks the oomph of many of its middle segments, and in fact I might even say that Sleepless is worth reading more for those middle segments—for Haas's growing despair at his incomprehension of the world, for Jasper's narration of the path that led to that destruction, for the Gibsonian interludes in Cager's club and art gallery—than it is for its story. Nevertheless, it is worth reading, and an almost effortless read to boot—Huston has the mystery writer's gift for dialogue and for moving the plot along. The ever-increasing flow of outsider authors into science fiction has produced some remarkable, and some deplorable, works. Sleepless, for all its flaws, is very much in the former camp, and I hope that Huston will continue to write within the genre, and that with future novels he will more fully explore its tools and possibilities.
Abigail Nussbaum (firstname.lastname@example.org) works as a software engineer in Tel Aviv, Israel. Her work has previously appeared in The Internet Review of Science Fiction, Vector, and the Israeli SFF quarterly The Tenth Dimension. She blogs on matters genre and otherwise at Asking the Wrong Questions.