Book Review: Sleepless by Charlie Huston (Audiobook narrated by Ray Porter and Mark Bramhall)
In an alternate 2010, the world is slowly falling into disarray, partially due to terrorism, but mostly due to a new deadly illness. SLP makes the sufferer an insomniac, unable to sleep for years, until they fall into a state of insanity known as the suffering. The sleepless, as those with the illness are known, change the structure of society. Movie theaters are now open 24/7, there’s an increase in sales of odd and illicit things, as the sleepless get bored. Most importantly, the sleepless have moved much of their energy into online MMORPGs. Some spending countless hours gold farming there, making a good buck with all their hours of alertness.
Park, an old-fashioned cop, is determined to save the structure of society, one bust at a time. He’s committed to his work, in spite of his wife being sleepless and being increasingly unable to care for their infant daughter. So when his boss asks him to go undercover to look for people illegally selling the one drug that can ease the pain of the sleepless–dreamer–he agrees.
Jasper is an elderly ex-military private investigator without much of an eye for sticking to the rule of the law who is asked by a client to hunt down and return to her a thumb drive that was stolen. He slowly discovers that that thumb drive ended up in the middle of much more than some art thieves and finds himself sucked into the world of illicit dreamer.
My partner and I both enjoy a good noir story, so when we saw this summary on Audible, we thought it would make an entertaining listen for our 12 hour holiday road trip. The story was so bad, we could only take it for about an hour at a time and eventually just turned it off so I could read out loud to him from a different book. I eventually soldiered on, though, because I honestly just had to finish it so I could review it. In what should be a fast-paced noir, there is instead an overwrought amount of description of unimportant things that slow what could have been an interesting plot down to a crawl.
Noir as a genre is a thriller that generally features a hard-boiled detective (sometimes a hard-boiled criminal). It’s fast-paced and usually short featuring a lot of grit and mean streets. One thing Huston does that puts an interesting twist on the noir is he incorporates both a cop who is being forced to turn detective and a criminal-style private investigator. He features both sorts of main character. This intrigued me from the beginning. However, the writing includes far too much description of unimportant things for a crime thriller. For instance, there is an at least 5 minutes long description of a computer keyboard. I could literally space out for a few minutes and come back to the audiobook that was playing the entire time and miss literally nothing. It would still be describing the same chair. This really slows the plot down.
On top of the overly descriptive writing, the narration is overwrought, like a stage actor trying too hard. The best explanation I can make for the narration is, if you have ever seen Futurama, the narration switches back and forth between being Calculon and being Hedonbot. Now, I admit, the audiobook narrators played these parts perfectly. In fact, I had to check to see if they’re the same voice actors as Calculon and Hedonbot (they’re not). I really think the audiobook narrators are what saved the story enough to keep me reading. I kept laughing at the visual of Calculon and Hedonbot doing this overwrought noir. But that is clearly not what makes for a good noir. The tone and writing style were all wrong for the plot.
In addition to the writing style, there’s the plot. In this world that Huston has imagined, gamers have become all-important. When people go sleepless, they become intense gamers. If they don’t do this then they become zombie-like criminals. I don’t think this is a realistic imagining of what would actually happen if a huge portion of the population became permanent insomniacs. Not everyone is a gamer or a criminal. There’s a lot more options in the world than that. Additionally, in this alternate 2010, the art world now revolves around MMORPGs as well. The art work that is now sold is thumb drives of the characters that people make in the games. There is a long speech in the book about how making a character in an MMORPG is art. Yes, somepeople might think that. But it is incredibly doubtful that the entire world would suddenly overnight start viewing character building in an MMORPG as an art form. I won’t explain how, because it’s a spoiler, but the gamers also come into play in the seedy underworld of illegal drugs. At the expense of a plot that follows the logic of the world the author has created, gamers are made to be inexplicably all-important.
I also must point out that the science in this book is really shaky. SLP was originally a genetic disease that suddenly becomes communicable. That’s not how diseases work. Communicable and genetic diseases are different, they don’t suddenly morph into one or the other. Additionally, in the real world, there’s no way an illness would be given a scientific name that is an abbreviation for the common name (SLP for sleepless). Think about swine flu. The common name is swine flu, the scientific name is H1N1. Similarly, the drug to treat SLP’s official name is DR33M3R, which is just the street name, dreamer, in leetspeak. This isn’t fiction based in true science.
One thing I did appreciate in the book is that the semi-criminal private investigator, Jasper, is gay. He’s extremely macho, ex-military, and he bangs his also macho helicopter pilot. I like the stereotype-breaking characterization of Jasper. It’s nice to see a gay man given such a strong role in a thriller.
Overall, this alternate 2010 noir gets too caught up in overly long descriptions of mundane things and an overwrought narrative style to keep the plot moving at a thriller pace. The plot features an unrealistic level of importance for MMORPGs and the gamers who play, as well as unsound “science.” One of the hardboiled main characters is a stereotype-breaking gay man, however, which is nice to see. Recommended to those who enjoy an overly descriptive, overacting narration style with gamers featured unrealistically at center stage who don’t mind some shaky science in the plot.
2 out of 5 stars