The Rapture of the Nerds
By Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross
Published by Blackstone Audio, Inc.
Read by John Lee
Some time ago I wrote a review that was entitled “Listening Bad Books So You Won’t Have To.” I was referring to Edward G Bulwer-Lytton’s travesty of literature, The Last Days of Pompeii, which for some reason I am unable to understand has been adapted to various performance arts more often than it deserves. However, in spite of my disdain for the works of Bulwer-Lytton, that horrible book was a literary masterpiece when compared to The Rapture of the Nerds. Rarely have I encountered such a sloppily written, badly paced and intellect-insulting read.
The whole thing is a tale of post-singularity world after many humans have chosen to upload themselves to the cyber-world and those left on Earth are either technophobes or just flat-out crazy… No I take that back, they are all flat-out crazy. There are no good excuses.
It is hard to know where to begin on critiquing this book, but let’s start with the beginning. The authors somehow believed that the best way to introduce a possible future world is to throw the readers under a bus. No not literally, that might have been better, but instead we are thrust into a nonsensical tsunami of bad science fiction clichés and stereotypes without even the life preserver of a single familiar fixture from the past from which to translate the differences between their fiction and the world we live in now. Something, anything would have helped, but instead they went out of their way to twist their world out of all possibility, frequently throwing out a term that sounds familiar but turns out to be just the opposite or at least have little to no relationship to Twenty-first Century meaning.
After a while, the reader starts to get the notion that everything they know is wrong or that the authors just don’t care. Indeed as new facets of their world come to light I could not but help think they were making it all up as they went along, which is a horrible way to invent a new world, that sort of thing needs to be planned if you want a coherent fictional world. I will not say this world was not planned from start to finish, but if so, there should have been more thought put into it rather than jamming in various clichés into a soft bit a verbal Playdoh expected to hold them all together. So when reading, you do not really ever have a firm grasp on the sort of world these people are living in, especially in the final section which mostly takes place in cyberspace. The reader does, from time to time get a grasp on the shape of the world only to have it kicked out from under their feet a moment later. That can be effective, but was just tiring in this case and frequently did nothing to enhance the story.
The characters are a malleable as the landscape, though. We get a hint of that when the authors slip in that a person can change their gender on a whim and frequently do as easily (and in the same room) as they brush their teeth. It is predictable that eventually the main character, Huw (pronounced Hugh or Hue) would undergo a change of gender too. Well, why not? It’s been a common SF theme for as long as I’ve been reading so while it is hardly an original theme. Actually there are examples of sex-change in stories going back to the ancient world so in some ways it’s a tired old notion, but then there really wasn’t any feature of the fictional world I found new or original. And, even more disappointing, gender makes absolutely no difference on the characters, other than wearing different clothing they barely notice they have suddenly “changed teams” so to speak. I suppose that is a good way to say that people are people and that gender is only a distraction, which I can agree with most of the time, but if that is the message it gets lost in the haze. No, the only difference is figuring which pronoun to use depending on when one is talking about Huw.
The story is full of pop-culture references that were frequently out of place or inappropriate or just plain distracting. I really could have lived without the constant references to other authors’ SF and fantasy series. There were so many it felt as though they were thrown in to stretch the story out to a required length.
My recurring impression was that the authors were bullies and just wanted to shove me around to make me miserable for their own enjoyment. It’s a shame when an author doesn’t appreciate the fact that their readers are. Ultimately, the source of their income.
Okay, so it’s a hodge-podge whirlwind of a kludged-up world. One could argue that if you tossed a copy of any 2016 New York Times mainstream bestseller at a book club in 1916 they would have just as much trouble understanding the world within it as I did with this book, but the difference if that the 2016 book would have been written for a 2016 audience and not one living a century earlier. However, let’s put aside my rants about the world the story takes place in. I won’t even go into the details of the haphazard way in which the plot was stitched together so badly even Doc Frankenstein would not have bothered to try reviving it.
How many times can you drop the “F-Bomb” before the whole story blows up? Certainly less often that what I went through here. Why do some authors think that swearing is a sign of sophistication? Too many I fear. Don’t give me the argument that that is how real people talk. Maybe you do, maybe the authors do. I do not nor do most of the people I hang out with unless they get very angry, but in this case Huw and almost everyone else at the start of this book use the F-word as though it is a vitamin and they are desperate to get their recommended daily minimum dosage of it. Every page, especially in the first two sections of the story has a scattering of F-bombs as though the authors placed them with a pepper shaker. Were they trying to make the word just so much meaningless noise? If so, they succeeded especially since even the narrative passages used the word which is just very bad and sloppy writing. There is never a reason for a third person narrator to swear. Never.
I also found their tendency to write this sloppy story in the third person present tense (as in “Huw takes a drink and then goes to wash his ‘effing’ hands”) somewhat distracting, but then I was taught to write such passages in the past tense. I’ll let that one go since with all the other flaws, that was a mere annoyance.
Is this story supposed to be a parody? A satire? If so, it very much missed the mark. There are one or two moments that I did find amusing, but none of it was thought provoking, at least it did not provoke any thoughts other than wondering how much longer it was going to go on.
Now I know that this book has received positive reviews. I don’t know why, but it has and if forced to guess I can only hazard that the authors made good use of the old adage, “If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bulls**t.”
It is hard, sometimes, to review a reader’s performance when the subject matter is so jarringly offensive, but I am sorry to report that John Lee’s reading could have been much better. To give Mr. Lee his props, He does seem to have a vast supply of different accents, although nearly all of them are so thick you need a machete to get through them.
Huw, for example, is supposed to be Welsh. I had trouble hearing him as Welsh, but perhaps the accent is accurate and the few people I have met from Wales were the exceptions. Certainly his constant whining made it hard to pin that accent down. But when in Tunisia, the accents, while vaguely Middle Eastern occasionally sounded like they were slipping over to India for a brief vacation and the accents in South Carolina =ranged back and forth between Alabama and Texas, but never quite reached the East Coast.
I think Mr. Lee might have done far better not to use the heavy accents. Just reading the story might have made it easier to swallow. Maybe I’m wrong there. His performance is not the worst part of this book and even the finest reader could not have saved what turned out to be an excruciating experience of story-telling gone wrong. I only listened to the whole thing because of my policy not to review a story I have not listened to completely. I did it, so now you won’t have to.