I started out as an adolescent reader feasting on science fiction, and even as I studied modern literature — and decades after that, began writing stories and novels of my own — I have kept up my habit of turning to science fiction, as I do also to thrillers, to clear my palate between books I think of as more serious. Or, as I like to think of it, sometimes you want filet mignon, sometimes you crave a Big Mac.
So I couldn't have been happier to dig into these two new novels, each in its own way a fast track to narrative satiety. Charlie Huston's new novel, Sleepless, posits an insomnia plague spreading across Southern California (and the rest of the country). After such popular works as Stephen King's The Stand and Guillermo del Toro's recent zombie treat The Strain, (or terrific movies like 28 Days Later), we know pretty much how this works — with a disease that spreads rapidly across towns and cities by airborne transmission or from biter to bitee, one chomp at a time.
In Huston's version, though medical knowledge of the transmission of the sleeplessness plague is still fairly uncertain, its symptoms are quite apparent. It keeps you awake all night, quite fuzzy-minded during the day, and then kills you after a couple of months. Its effect on society at large is devastating. We find L.A. turned upside down, with riots and gun battles raging in the streets, and the wealthy holed up behind barricades defended by moonlighting police. Meanwhile, a big pharma company seems to have developed a drug called Dreamer, a very expensive palliative for the disease, if not a full cure ... and everybody wants it.
Enter an honest L.A. cop — a detective named Parker — whose wife is suffering from the sleepless plague, leaving the care of their small child mostly to him. When he's on the job, he finds himself charged with the hope that he can find some Dreamer to help her condition, much to the dismay of his more cynical superior officers. Parker's quest leads him, as you might expect, into the new drug underworld of plague-ridden L.A., where the dangers are quite distinct and unexpected.
If this new novel doesn't keep you awake — and I really think it will — you can pick up the new Douglas Preston novel, Impact, in which human beings find themselves threatened — this time at the planet level — by strange bombardments from the direction of Mars. Some hopeful science fiction fans such as yours truly have begun to see Preston as the possible successor to the recently deceased Michael Crichton. It remains to be seen if he is that good, but his new book is certainly good to keep at one's fingertips during periods of narrative craving.
The science laced through Impact's story comes right out of, as they say, today's science headlines. It is a lot of fun to follow the American intelligence freelancer Wyman Ford and a college-bound female science student (the adopted daughter of a fishing boat captain), from the jungles of Cambodia to the barren islands off the coast of Maine, as they join forces to try to head off the menace from outer space. The menace? A weapon so devastating that it shoots a beam through space that can pierce the globe itself. Yeah, a shot fired from the environs of Mars strikes in Maine and — this is how we get to Cambodia — comes out on the other side of the world!
Some novels you want to savor, some you want to read so quickly that you can scarcely keep yourself from tearing pages as you move forward. Preston's entertaining accomplishments tend toward the latter. Both of these books will serve you well on the next sleepless night.