Today I realized how hard I have to struggle, as a reader, to recover after a serious stumble on the opening page. The book is actually stronger than my experience of it suggests, but I have to report what happened to me – not what I think will happen to other people.
What I gleaned about the story: A cyber-noir tale about an open-source detective investigating avataricide in the gritty near future.
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Kudos: There’s a lot to like about this book. Wehm seems to have filled this world with inventive detail. The augmented reality interface, the avatars, the hero’s fake job and and the sort of “open source” policing organization he really works for… All of these are hallmarks of a great story. But…
Analysis: Openings are crucial. Who is “she?” Who is “he?” Reading that opening passage now, it seems patently obvious that Dex is narrating, talking about some woman who has come to see him. Only that’s not the way I read it. Since the pronouns are as-yet unanchored, I parsed it differently. In my version, Dex is a woman who has just entered a bar, but is only just realizing why. And once this mistaken interpretation has been made, it is really hard to shake. I made it through the entire first page, wondering about this mysterious “him” that she-Dex was here to see. She watches him page around through his virtual augmentation, and I’m wondering why his virtual interface would be visible to her. That sounds intriguing. Show me more.
Eventually, however, I got enough of a 2×4 between the eyes to realize that Dex was not the “she.” Dex was the “he.” And now everything made sense. But sadly, now there was no magical floating interface hovering in front of each character. Dex was not a confused woman who was only just starting to piece together the reasons for all her actions. It was just a noir guy sitting in a bar watching some chick, while he surfed his desktop and grumbled. In other words, I’d had a very intriguing experience suddenly snap back to a more vanilla, predictable seeming experience. I was like Dorothy waking up from her dream of Oz to find myself in a vanilla, grayscale world. Sigh. My bad.
Analysis: This is another subtle one, but it tripped me up. Three times in the course of a page and a half, I encountered these references to his cover job. The concept is actually pretty cool. He has a day job, in order to secure cash and benefits, but it’s a low-level phone support job. His real work, funded by this cover, is to act as a volunteer detective, providing policing services to people who do not have access to corporate security forces, in this slightly dystopian future. But my problem is the implication behind each of these three utterances. In the first, he is saying that the policing job is his “real” job. Then he says it “wasn’t a job,” because it was more like a calling. And then still later, he refers to his series of cover jobs as “real jobs.” So which jobs do you perceive as real, Dex? The covers, or the gritty crime solving stuff?
Now, I get that these are very subtle issues, but by now, people reading this series should know my mantra: details matter. For me, these references to his job are crucial indicators of how he perceives the world he lives in and his life situation. So having him appear to waffle in his feeling of which job was real to him, and which was the fantasy, annoyed me. He seemed to be flopping back and forth within the space of about 1 minute. This gritty detective guy can’t even make up his mind about what’s real to him? So I jumped back to check whether I might have misread something, and that was the flag on the play. Immersion was broken.
Note: I should also point outt that, when I encountered these problems, I was still fuming over that whole he/she problem from the opening page. That had left me feeling stupid, which meant I was in an antagonistic frame of mind. I seriously considered pulling the plug here (clock time: 05:53), because I had now totalled up a list of 3 WTFs (There was another one stemming from the confusion over she-Dex.) But after taking a deep breath, I realized that the other one was really just a symptom of that initial problem, and that the fault was as much my own as the writing. So I decided to keep the score at WTF2, and I pressed on.
Analysis: This was the quote that finally tipped me over. It seems innocent enough on its own, but this was about the fourth time I’d encountered infodump narration. The problem for me is that we’re in a very intimate narrative mode, so the narration is closely linked to the POV character’s inner thinking, and this passage is akin to: he heard the click of the lock and thought about his key twisting in the lock, clearing the pins and engaging the rotary tumbler. It’s not that the facts are wrong or even that they’re uninteresting. It’s just that nobody thinks that way. We don’t narrate the technological underpinnings of our commonplace experiences to ourselves as we go about our day. We just do stuff. So by the time I’d run across this line, it was becoming a familiar irritant—another too-conspicuous inclusion of world-building details. Science fiction is perhaps the most common genre of all in which to encounter this kind of info dump, because readers expect technological invention, so writers have to find ways to include them. But I’m particularly sensitive to violations of the narrative POV like this, and in this case, I stopped to think about how often it was happening. So clearly, immersion was broken again.
Notes: I want to reiterate that I think Self Made is stronger than my 18:09 time suggests, and I’m probably going to try it again, later, once my jets have cooled on the whole she-Dex debacle. I think that false start ended up making me unusually picky today. And besides… I’m curious to see how this whole open-source crime-fighting thing plays out.