Wednesday, September 18, 2019

"The Return of the Incredible Exploding Man" by Dave Hutchinson

Dave Hutchinson is a weirdly good writer, and I don’t quite know how to characterize The Return of the Incredible Exploding Man precisely because of that skill. Absorbingly readable, it’s nonetheless doing some very odd things at the meta level, things that left me with a definitive feeling of “huh” when it was all over.

Alex Dolan is a recently out-of-work science writer, a Scot, who is offered a lucrative book deal by an eccentric American billionaire, Stan Clayton. Reluctantly signing on, Dolan makes his way to the still-developing Sioux Crossing Supercollider in Iowa, Clayton’s pet project. Lightly enmeshed in the lives and politics of the science team and native Iowans, Dolan is also roped into light espionage by the British government, and faces an escalating series of threats from an unknown antagonist. Finally, three-quarters through the novel, Dolan must deal with a bizarre accident at the supercollider, and its aftermath.

In plot outline, it’s not terribly exciting, and the speculative elements are submerged until the very end. In execution, however, it’s strangely compelling. While the characters remain curiously underdeveloped, Hutchinson has a deft and engaging way of capturing Dolan’s basic interactions and investigation as he settles into Sioux Crossing, with a keen but understated sense of several layers of surreality—both the exposure to effortlessly profligate wealth and the psychological and social effects of living in flyover country long after the family farm has evaporated. In the corporate-government-scientific trifecta, there’s a whiff of the opaquely paranoid—a mode Hutchinson has used magnificently in previous work—and a surprisingly effective human-interest story in Dolan’s neighbor, a mildly disgraced novelist. When things literally blow up in the fourth act, Hutchinson has laid enough groundwork that Dolan’s reactions don’t feel forced, even as the entire backdrop changes.

But: weird, let me count the ways. Probably the biggest and most obvious is that this is kind of Watchmen fanfic: this idea is Dr. Manhattan’s origin story. It’s too close to give it wiggle room. Even the cover evokes the panel in Watchmen where Jonathan Osterman is destroyed by a nuclear experiment, only reconstitute himself as the godlike Manhattan. It’s weird to see such a blatant riff on such a recognizable concept, perhaps especially given Hutchinson’s fairly subdued take on it. The timing in the plot, coupled with the unresolved, ongoing crisis at the novel’s end, gives the whole thing less the feel of a self-contained novel, or the first in a series, and more that of a prequel. Which is itself weird: prequel to what?

A far less off-putting bit of strangeness is the depth of the pastiche: up until the supercollider gets explodey, The Return of the Incredible Exploding Man follows a beat-for-beat William Gibson formula. Not the flashy Neuromancer kind of stuff, but the later Gibson. The down-on-their-luck creative-type, the splash of realism in the disintegrating journalism world, the reality-warping influence of dense concentrations of capital, the brief and jaded interest in gadgets, the local color—it all could be straight out of the “Blue Ant Trilogy”, or even the calmer bits of Count Zero or All Tomorrow’s Parties. Hutchinson hat-tips this early on—Dolan stays at the “New Rose Hotel”, which is also an early Gibson story—and it’s a very well done bit of homage, but the style is so close that I found it a little disorienting at times. It’s like a very talented musician covering a pop song you know well: the talent is obvious, the material is good, but it’s kind of uncanny by virtue of its proximity to the original. It’d be less weird if it were a little less exact.

What’s kind of extra strange about these two elements—the Watchmen riff, the Gibson formula—is that the novel in no way relies on the reader knowing about them. This would be just as readable, maybe even more so, without that knowledge. Critiques aside, I can’t mention enough how almost invisibly skilled a writer Hutchinson is. The “Fractured Europe” had such massive payouts from such astonishingly slow burns that I’m willing to be very patient with his work—whether this is the beginning of such a longer project, or a one-off experiment in style, it’s either way a quite enjoyable (if odd) excursion.

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