It sure as shinola doesn't bode well for a novel when I'm ready to throw it across the room and out the window, and I'm only up to page 16. Still, I have a "give it a chance" rule, one I think is fair. As lousy as a book is shaping up to be, I'll try to go 100 pages before giving up. I have many friends for whom a book goes right in the dumpster if it doesn't grab them by the first chapter — or even first few pages. Well, in the final analysis, Virtual Death is just a really, really bad book, people. Yet somehow, this debut novel by Shale Aaron — a pseudonym for Houstonian writer Robert Boswell — managed to make it onto the shortlist for the Philip K. Dick Award, leading me to conclude that 1995 was the year the award's judges collectively went insane.
The novel is another annoying exercise in post-cyberpunk sturm-und-drang that was dated when it came out. Reminiscent of the worst cyberpunk had to offer rather than the best, Virtual Death introduces us to the unappealing Lidya Melmoth, a woman in her late 30's who once made her living as a performance artist whose act consisted of dying and being revived. Hence her name, obviously. The world in which she lives is a trendily contrived, faux-decadent riff on the technogrunge design of Blade Runner and Gibson's Sprawl, where guns are sold in vending machines, freeway snipings are as common as lane changes, fetish bars offer sex with unconventional parts of the body, characters perform stand-up depression (rather than stand-up comedy, though if you ask me there's rarely a difference in real life).
Yadda yadda yadda. You get the idea. Boswell/Aaron is so determined to shock us with the depravity to which humanity has sunk, that in the first couple of chapters, it seems in every paragraph he's introducing some new cultural absurdity. The nadir of ludicrousness comes when he tells us of people called moles who have their sex organs surgically relocated to other parts of their bodies. I swear to god the following is a direct quote: "A traffic cop had them implanted at the elbow, so that waving cars on would become more pleasurable." That, kids, is from the infamous, aforementioned page 16. And if I thought for a minute he'd actually read the thing, I'd call it a blatant swipe from Jack Dann's The Man Who Melted, where it was applied to somewhat less ridiculous effect.
But wait, you're probably saying, this is all so silly it cannot be intended seriously. Virtual Death must be some kind of satire. Like Natural Born Killers on crystal meth. Gee, doesn't that sound appetizing.
Perhaps. But if so, it's every bit as guilty as that film is of sledgehammer subtlety. And as much as you may like or dislike that film, you have to admit Oliver Stone does at the very least have a powerful talent for playing with your emotions like so much Silly Putty — a talent alien to Boswell here. Virtual Death, through its thick layers of artifice and outright sham, remains emotionally aloof. A satire about humanity's supposed obsession with death has got to have something a little life-affirming about it, in order for you to have a frame of reference against which to weigh the message. Boswell seems to be delivering Virtual Death with the straightest possible face, which makes me think he's not after satire at all. He's trying to compose what the cover calls a "necromantic thriller." But to give Virtual Death the benefit of the doubt: if it is supposed to be a satire, it fails because Boswell mistakes simple snark and attitude for wit.
Lidya's own profession, though once illegal, is apparently now the hottest thing going. I can understand how watching someone die and then come back would hold a definite morbid interest, but I don't see it becoming a spectator sport to rival Monday Night Football. It's something Boswell just wants you to suspend disbelief for, and I wasn't in the mood after all that bullshit about guys with dicks on their elbows in chapter one. Yes, Boswell does have Lidya mention that people come to see her because doing so makes death seem less frightening, but this reasoning is only touched upon superficially and fails to convince. The story gets going when Lidya is contacted by her brother, Stamen (yes, Stamen), because he's in trouble with the Cops (yes, it's capitalized, ask Boswell) because he and their mother have been involved with a group called the Banjos, whose only apparent goal is to get rid of guns and violence in society. This, we are told, is such a grevious offense that the organization has been driven underground by some kind of Gestapo-like police force.
If it seems unbelievable that any social structure could survive in which wild dogs roaming the streets are a legal form of population control, street shootings are things you casually count while sipping a mocha java, and the #1 law enforcement priority is the apprehension of people who want to keep the world crime-free....well, it is. Unless you're doing good satire, but we've already established Virtual Death is a heap of fail in that category. Lidya, Stamen, and this irritating little chap named Frankly, who's supposed to be funny but never is, take it on the lam from pursuers who remain invisible and ill-explained. Couple this lack of a clearly defined antagonist with the fact these characters are about as appealing as watching someone eat his own boogers, and you have a dramatic tension quotient of right around zero.
Inconsistencies abound. The Banjos are implied to be a pacifist group. Yet, a hero of this society's underground is a woman who, in order to protest the banning of public education by an act of Congress (!), bombed a schoolhouse with several children inside. Huh? Yeah yeah, perhaps all would have become clear if I'd stuck with it through the end...but it's an author's job to keep me interested in his work, to give me a reason to care and to believe. And Boswell/Aaron wasn't up to the job.
Oh, well, I think I've said enough. Virtual Death is virtually illogical, virtually incomprehensible, virtually unreadable, and completely awful. Robert Boswell has since gone on to release a number of non-genre books under his own name that appear to have been well received, if by the likes of Oprah. This would indicate to me that Virtual Death is another example of what happens when an otherwise talented writer goes into dilettante mode and putters around in SF without a real clue as to what he's about. It may fool the odd starstruck awards panel, but the readers, and the genre as a whole, deserve much, much better.