Review of Idlewild, by Nick Sagan
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 8/19/05
You know you’re in for not too good a reading experience when the only real words of praise a book can muster is being compared to a film, and having the author’s lineage trotted out. In the case of Nick Sagan’s first book, Idlewild, the film was The Matrix, and the lineage was his famed father, pop astronomer Carl Sagan. Unfortunately, the film his book is compared to is not exactly a masterpiece to begin with, and the son lacks the father’s prose ability. While Carl Sagan was never a Loren Eiseley with prose (who is?) he was well ensconsed within the milieu of the science writing renaissance of the 1960s and 1970s, which included such notables as Stephen Jay Gould, Jacob Bronowski, Richard Dawkins, Martin Rees, and Jared Diamond. Nick wrote teleplays for Star Trek spinoffs.
But, while I don’t think the book is as abysmal as many of the science fiction reviews of the book I skimmed before writing this, it is not a good book. The primary reason is what I call Neil Gaimanism, or perhaps more accurately Frank Millerism. Over a decade ago, when I worked at a magazine distributorship, I would often, in down times and/or on breaks, read through the comic books of the era. This was also the heyday of ‘graphic novels’, which were simply hoidy-toidy comic books that tried to emulate the more adult themes of the Japanese manga. Many were good, and many bad. Among the best, and most seminal were Frank Miller’s re-envisioning of the batman mythos in The Dark Knight Returns. This was the beginning of what would be called cyber-punk. Miller was a de facto god in the comics world, and perhaps is greatest acolyte was Neil Gaiman, whose Sandman series was, like Miller’s takes on Batman and other classic superheroes, considered essential reading.
I admit I enjoyed reading the comics as they came in every week, and was impressed with two things- how much deeper they were over the comics I had read in the decades before, and how much better the storytelling was than in ‘serious’ fiction being published. Of course, the bulk was still crap, but I remember, especially, one panel of a Green Lantern comic book, where former Green Lantern Hal Jordan, after murdering other superheroes in the throes of depression over the destruction of his city from a Superman storyline. Jordan is back in his city, having finally succeeded in restoring it to the way it was before, but it all turns out to be a fleeting wist. The panel, and the reveal were magnificently timed.
The problem is that many novelists are former comic book writers, or screenwriters like Sagan, who were heavily influenced by graphic novels. As a result, when left with merely the words themselves they are just dealing with ideas, and not with realities that need to be fleshed out, so the writing reads like a graphic novel, sans the graphics. The result is a half-finished product, and many clichéd situations and dialogue, that can be mitigated with a greatly drawn panel or page. But, as prose it’s horrible. Along with Gaiman are such writers as Chuck Palahniuk, and virtually every other new science fiction writer to be published in the last two decades since Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns.
Sagan is no exception. His tale may have been cutting edge in the early 1980s era of Tron, but not now. There really is not an original idea in the book. But, if well done, and showing an ability to plumb familiar ideas, a thing that could be clichéd instead becomes classical. Sagan is not a good enough stylist to rise above cliché.
Idlewild is a typical near-future thriller- ala Blade Runner, revolving around the titular hometown of the main character named Hal, short for Halloween. He wakes up not knowing who nor where he is- think Dark City- but sure that he is in the crosshairs of a murder plot. He seems to be inside of a computer hologram (think The Matrix, Tron) larded with ‘deep meaning’ and symbolism. As the book slogs along Hal thinks he may have murdered someone named….Lazarus. Now, let’s not get too obvious Nick- other characters are Champagne, Fantasia, and Vashti. Hal then recalls that he is a teenager at the Idlewild IVR Academy- short for Immersive Virtual Reality, which is sponsored by a nefarious global corporation (think latter day James Bond or Ben Affleck films) called Gedaechtnis. Is any of it real? The teacher is hip and called Maestro, but Hal and his classmates think he is an evil servant of the corporation. Is he? Wooooo….Hal struggles on to reclaim his past, perhaps destroyed by a malfunction, and track down the mysterious Lazarus. He is lied to by everyone, or himself? He desires to ‘realize’ his life, as do his pals. An Armageddon-like end may or may not be real. Something called the Black Ep may be responsible, so humanity programmed this world, to train these designer children, to eventually restore real life- stay tuned for book two of the trilogy. There are plenty of subplots but none are developed. This may be mitigated because the book is the first of a trilogy, but that doesn’t help the stand alone first book any.
All in all, having recently read quite a bit of the short stories of Philip K. Dick, these ideas are not new, compelling, nor does Sagan have Dick’s ability to contort plot back on itself. Dick is vastly overrated, at least in his short stories, but Sagan’s mind simply is not that creative, nor is it that detailed to convince the situation is real, even if ultimately holographic. Too often what seem to be major reveals are, instead, feints, while minutia gain in import. This may appear good plotting, but instead many of the minutia really twist back into being that. The dialogue is atrocious- an unwitting parody of teenagers, rather than the real thing. As for the underlying meaning of the book? Better to reread Franz Kafka’s The Trial or The Castle. It’s not so much that Sagan’s book is so bad than that it is so utterly generic. There’s not a single thing that is not cribbed from another writer. That said, it would probably make a good graphic novel. Lo!
PS- now that a couple of weeks have gone by since I first wrote the above review I can say that the novel has almost totally faded from my memory- not a good sign. While I still agree with my claim that it’s not a terrible book it’s certainly not a good one, and the signs are all pointing negative for further slippage in my library’s pantheon.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Yet Another Book Review website.]
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