Sensationby Nick Mamatas
When Julia Hernandez leaves her husband, shoots a real estate developer, and then vanishes without a trace, she slips out of the world she knew and into the Simulacruma place where human history is both guided and thwarted by the conflict between a species of anarchist wasps and a collective of hyperintelligent spiders. When Julia's ex-husband Raymond spots
When Julia Hernandez leaves her husband, shoots a real estate developer, and then vanishes without a trace, she slips out of the world she knew and into the Simulacruma place where human history is both guided and thwarted by the conflict between a species of anarchist wasps and a collective of hyperintelligent spiders. When Julia's ex-husband Raymond spots her in a grocery store he doesn't usually patronize, he's soon drawn into an underworld of radical political gestures where Julia is the new media sensation of both this world and the Simulacrum. Told ultimately from the collective point of view of another species, this allegorical novel plays with the elements of the Simulacrum apparent in real lifemedia reports, business speak, blog entries, text messages, psychological-evaluation forms, and the lies lovers tell one anotherand poses a fascinating idea that displaces human beings from the center of the universe and makes them simply the pawns of two warring species.
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By Nick Mamatas
PM PressCopyright © 2011 Nick Mamatas
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Raymond saw his ex-wife twice — both times by accident — in the first few months after she went into hiding. The context in which Raymond first saw Julia after her murder of Peter Neads Fishman was so bizarre to him that he didn't even realize it was her at first. She was at the Food Emporium on the corner of West 12 Street and Sixth Avenue, where she never ever shopped before, and her shopping cart was stocked with items he knew she didn't eat.
She even wrote a check, pulling her checkbook from the purple purse — Purple! thought Raymond — and filling out every line while two of the other customers behind her silently fumed. There was a third customer too, a large man of indeterminate ethnicity in whose emptied-out brainpan we rode. We cradled a gallon of skim milk like it was an infant and waited more patiently. Raymond had thought she might have been someone from high school, or maybe even the television, until she smiled at the oblivious cashier and, in response to his clipped "Have a good day," said what Julia always used to say:
Half acknowledgment, half farewell, that's what Julia had been like. She had a way of looking at Raymond, at anyone with whom she was speaking, really, that made him (or them, or you, and once even us) feel like the most important person in the world, but only so long as you kept proving it to her every few seconds. By nodding intently when she spoke. By feeding her windups for her punchlines. Raymond might fuss over some story he'd heard on NPR about the Gaza Strip and how one-state solutions to the crisis seemed so unfeasible and she'd say, "Well, you can't expect the world to give the Palestinians their own land. Look at how they live." She'd smile a statue's smile for a second and then burst into laughter at his chagrin. Then she'd move on to some other topic, or, ultimately, some other person or way of life so profoundly challenging to the status quo that we had to step in; we had to bring her from her world into ours.
In a flash, Raymond realized something, just from the twitch and curve of the pen in Julia's hand. She'd finally stopped using his surname, Hernandez, and was back to Ott. Whatever life she was living now, he was not in it. Raymond started shopping at the Food Emporium every day. He never saw Julia there again, but did frequently run into the man of indeterminate ethnicity. Vaguely Asian, but no. Saami perhaps, Raymond almost decided. He hated his tendency to pigeonhole, despite the fact that he could muster some professional interest in the subject of ethnicity and physical anthropology. He taught at City University of New York's City College. He'd published articles about the conflation of Gitano, Roma, and Travelers in dominant cultures. He also shared a laugh with Julia whenever she used the name Hernandez, which would sometimes fluster and annoy drug store clerks and the like.
"Julia looks like an icicle," Raymond's mother once complained. "An icicle topped with crabgrass hair." Julia had even gotten a minority scholarship to return to grad school — MBA of all things — since no college would dare question whether or not she was actually Hispanic. A discreet inquiry? No. Genetic testing? Out of the question. Julia left school before graduating anyway. And yet, there Raymond was, struggling with the large man of indeterminate ethnicity.
The man's ethnicity was indeterminate by design, thanks to careful breeding, the manipulation of both genes and diet, and a large amount of tubiliform silk andchoreography. We live inside his left ear, and in many other places. We kept an eye on Julia, but we also now had to keep an eye on Raymond.
He'd been at the Food Emporium that day because he'd suddenly been caught up in the memory of the texture of Entenmann's Rich Frosted Donuts. The way the chocolate coating, hard and plasticky, split on his tongue. The meat of the doughnut, thick and spongy like it was made a day old. Objectively, these were not the qualities Raymond enjoyed in doughnuts. But that day he was slain in the spirit of Entenmann's Rich Frosted Donuts, and Whole Foods doesn't carry them, so there he was at the Food Emporium.
Raymond thought he'd glimpsed Julia around town several other times before finally deciding to track her down. But he couldn't be sure it was her. There Raymond was, sitting on the other side of and across from her on a train car on the M line when he had to go to a dentist in his network because his regular dentist was on vacation.
And there Raymond was at Edson Carvalho Brazilian Jujitsu and Judo, staring out the second-story window during his free lesson, panting and drinking his own sweat, when she wandered by, a patch of crabgrass navigating the flesh of the streets below. She was headed east, deep into the Gramercy neighborhood that had previously been too boring for Julia.
Bellevue is out that way, isn't it? Raymond asked himself. Then he felt a tug on his borrowed judogi and returned to the mat to practice being strangled.
And there Raymond was, at 11:11 p.m. on a Thursday night at Times Square, after just having left a performance of a revival of How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying with a woman he'd not see again after one tepid kiss and her quick sortie down the steps of the subway station, looking up at the huge digital displays of stock prices and headlines and the president's giant low-resolution head, noting the time and making a wish as he always did whenever he saw it was 11:11, and there was Julia next to him, chin high, doing the same, as she used to do when they were together. As she taught him to do when they had met ten years ago, on their first date. That was an 11:11 a.m. This time, this 11:11 p.m., he knew it was her.
You might think Raymond turned to say something and Julia was gone. That's how it goes. And he turned to face her, but she was gone. Raymond stood alone under the throb and thrum of Time Square's electric cathedral. But no, Julia was still there, and she smiled and put her eyes wide, expectantly, and I was behind them, in my large man of indeterminate ethnicity, ready to push Raymond into traffic, to end him right then and there, but his autonomic nervous system was wiser than his heart and he ran.CHAPTER 2
One year ago, Julia was stung by Hymenoepimescis sp., a wasp native to Panama that due to lackadaisical Customs procedures had managed to find its way to Long Island, specifically to the basement of the Stony Brook home of Julia's mother-in-law in a box of old blankets that a relative had sent to the United States as a demonstration of disgust with Julia's mother-in-law, Lynn. Here, the box of blankets seemed to say, you should be living like this, under these awful, stained blankets, not I!
Further, the basement itself had high radon levels, as sometimes happens on Long Island. The risks associated with living in the home of Lynn Hernandez are the equivalent of smoking ninety-eight packs of cigarettes a day. The Hymenoepimescis sp. colony, nonsmokers all, had mutated significantly over the course of the seven generations they lived in the basement. Normally, such wasps don't even build nests. We are their nests.
In nature, Hymenoepimescis sp. reproduces by conspiring against the Plesiometa argyra spider. Against us. The wasp attacks and lays its eggs within the spider's abdomen. The larvae consume the spider's haemolymph and then excrete a chemical that changes the spider's behavior. Instead of the web Plesiometa argyra usually builds, the chemical compels the spider to create a box-web design that can support the weight of the pupating wasp. After the web is done, the larvae eat the spider and build a cocoon in the strong web, then pupate.
In this particular sliver of nature, the wasp attacked Julia Hernandez, née Ott, and laid its eggs under Julia'sdermis. The larvae consumed some of Julia's blood, stuffing themselves to gorging and appearing rather like a blood blister. Julia, after several days of dizziness and a swollen forearm which looked rather frightful, even for a wasp sting, and was treated for the wound by a physician chosen by Julia's managed care provider for his ability to send patients home after a cursory examination without the slightest pang of professional guilt. He missed the eggs, of course. Julia was also given a course of levofloxacin, an antibiotic so popular amongst physicians that they call it, amongst themselves, "Vitamin L." The doctor wasn't expecting Julia to have a bacteriological infection from the sting, but he found that prescription medication helped shut patients up. Plus, they would often call when the course was over and he could then do a phone consultation. Without medication, too many patients went home and just stayed there, feeling intermittently sick from their symptoms.
In this case, however, levofloxacin gave Julia a false sense of security. She was sure that the drugs could handle any negative effects of the wasp sting, but of course antibiotics are not proof against oviposited mutant Hymenoepimescis sp. larvae. So when Julia began feeling peculiar urges, she didn't think to connect her innovative new ideas about life, society, and her role in it, to her day down in her mother-in-law's basement, where she was looking for Raymond's old comic books so that she could sell them on eBay and go to Greece for the summer.
Two months later, Julia, who was working at a Web 3.0 design firm as an executive assistant, read up on programming. She created a little subroutine, one that sliced a few cents off various e-commerce transactions for firms that contracted with her employer. She didn't steal the money; indeed, she barely kept it. The few cents were held for a day, and put onto the currency markets, and the interest was deposited automatically in an unnamed account in a Cayman Islands bank. This money was not for her. Indeed, it was supposed to be for you. Millions of transactions, billions of dollars, a few cents here and there with twenty-four hours worth of interest. She was a millionaire on paper by the end of the week.
Eleven months ago, Julia decided that she would never ever cross the street with the lights again. She jaywalked constantly, as if the little white man meant stop and the big red hand meant go. She would do this late at night, when there were no cars. She did it while striding across Broadway at the end of banking hours, ignoring the shrieks of the police, the belligerent howls of cabbies, and the calls of "Hey, you dumb bitch! What the fuck!"
When stopped by the police, she'd accept the ticket, go home, and pay it online with her stolen money. Julia jaywalked a lot. She jogged through red lights. Traffic snarls in the Bronx, where the I-95 funnels cars into the city ever-so-slowly in the nigh nonexistent best of circumstances, could be traced back to Julia walking across St. Mark's Place against traffic, oblivious to everything except for the fried peanut butter and jelly sandwich she bought from the bright pink automat with the first Richard Nixon dollar coins to be issued. Gas prices rose by 1.9 cents on the island of Manhattan due to increased usage by idling traffic.
Then she left Raymond. "Get up," she said, terse and tapping his shoulder. They were in the midst of an act of physical love. "Get off." It was 12:34 a.m and Raymond had penetrated her six minutes prior.
"Are you okay?" he asked.
"Oh yes," she said, instantly reassuring, her voice half a coo. Then she twisted her lips, as if hiding something. Raymond shifted to the right, bumping her thigh with the back of his hips and let her go. She slipped on a pair of panties and then her T-shirt. She reached back over the bed and retrieved her blue jeans, which had been crumpled up and under one of their pillows.
"Where are you going? What's the matter?" Raymond said. No coo would sooth him then.
"Oh, I'm leaving you," Julia said. She had her duffle bag out and was randomly scooping up clothing from her two drawers in their shared dresser.
Julia looked at Raymond closely. "I'm not going to give you a reason. I like you like this. I like the idea that your stomach just turned to concrete. That you might be ready to threaten me, maybe even hit me." Raymond's fists were balled up, as they often were when he was frustrated, but he hadn't even thought of punching Julia, of grabbing a fistful of her hair and swinging her head against the side of the doorjamb, until she'd said that.
"Don't say a fucking word. I have to see how long it will take for me to have another cock inside me. I'm aiming for under an hour." She reached into her duffle and produced a derringer. It looked chrome-kitschy, like some obscure instrument for applying eye make-up, or like something one might buy at Restoration Hardware to express a desire to be thought of as a person who liked to drink gin and read Hemingway, and she pointed it lazily at Raymond. He thought about trying to snatch it. Derringers fired small bullets, .22s. He knew that from somewhere. It's hard to kill someone with a .22, unless you shoot them in the eye. That last part he guessed. While Raymond considered leaping onto the gun, Julia kicked her feet into her pumps and stepped backwards out the door of their bedroom, then the kitchen, and left. He heard her walking down the hallway past the thin walls of the apartment, her duffle scraping along the banister.
Raymond decided definitely not to call his mother, though he really wanted to. He could still feel her on the hair of his crotch.
Three weeks after Julia left Raymond, she became incredibly famous.CHAPTER 3
Wars, contra the old saying, do not rage. Wars simmer. Small squads happen upon one another and open fire. Jets scream through the skies, launching missiles and dropping bombs, but for most on the ground, in deep tunnels or basements or caves, these sorties are just moments of thunder followed by years of slow and smoldering ruin. Then there are the insurgents, planning their little plans ever so slowly, trading chickens and old silverware for copper wire and car batteries that work, just for a single "improvised" explosive device. Everyone is involved in an insurgency, it's a war of all against some, but only tangentially. One woman has some powder, a man a clock that that he found in the trashed remains of an apartment building. Another fellow has a will to kill that outstrips his will to live. They work together, through a network of cousins and co-religionists and school chums who remember the good old days when bread was cheap enough to occasionally just let spoil on a countertop. That's war simmering to a slow boil it can never reach. War is hell, but only if hell is other people and other people are generally speaking both quite boring and extremely — if not necessarily rationally — self-interested.
War, in its simmering, is not a good match for the twenty-four hour news cycle. Reporters do not knock on doors, asking for the skinny on the old lead pipes that used to be rusting in some backyard but that quickly disappeared. None will ask an American GI how many times per week he masturbates, and whether the sand scratches his glans. The end result is that trauma of the vacuum of war, the void in which there are an insufficient number of sympathetic corpses to fill the white gap on the front pages and the grey hum of the screens: the slow news day.
And on a slow news day, Julia made her first public move. She had spent three days in Brooklyn, in a neighborhood with no crisp grid of streets and avenues. There was a different sense of things here, by the Atlantic Yards. History, layered like a sandwich or piles of leaves in a small old wood. Italians aging and dying, living in the homes built by stout WASPs and Germans, funded by the rails stretching past the horizon and to golden California, and beneath that flat farmland and streets stamped solid by foot and hoof. You needed to know your seventeenth-century Dutch history to really intuit your way around Brooklyn, and the stories of the second-rate robber barons that fell off the great island of Manhattan and ended up on the tip of the long island to recoup and build their own mausoleums to the self. Julia had said to herself, "Let's get lost," and she, and those Hymenoepimescis sp. itching under her skin, surely did get lost to all but us, and our men of indeterminate ethnicity.
Excerpted from Sensation by Nick Mamatas. Copyright © 2011 Nick Mamatas. Excerpted by permission of PM Press.
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Meet the Author
Nick Mamatas is the author of the novels Move Under Ground and Under My Roof, as well as the short story collection You Might Sleep. His writing has been translated into German, Italian, and Greek, and he has been nominated for the Bram Stoker and International Horror Guild Awards and the Kurd Lasswitz Prize. He is the coeditor of the online magazine Clarkesworld and his essays have appeared in the Clamor, In These Times, the New Humanist, the Smart Set, and the Village Voice. He lives in Oakland, California.
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There's a certain flavor of delight I feel when reading fiction that is smart, witty, cynical, and of-the-moment. The stuff that makes me laugh while being discomfited. Few works conjure this feeling for me -- books like Snow Crash, The Picture of Dorian Gray, parts of The Satanic Verses or Foucault's Pendulum. There's the fun of being in on a joke that not everyone will get. There's the pride of feeling like the author recognizes you're smart enough to get it (or sometimes the aspiration to learn more). Then the sheer delight of words being used to alter your consciousness in ways that you hadn't felt before. After reading Sensation, I will have to add Nick Mamatas to the short list of authors who conjure this experience for me. This is a story about revolution, about how small changes can produce huge effects, and how huge effects can maintain the status quo. (Yes, a butterfly in some far-flung locale could produce a hurricane somewhere else, but your tail-pipe emissions are more likely to. Need more butterflies.) If you love stories about suburbanites slowly losing the spark, or the profound symbolism of taupe drapery, you might not like this book. If you dislike irony, then don't read this book. If you think sarcasm is cruel, don't read this book. If you think humans are God's gift to planet earth (or vice versa), then you might not like what Sensation has to tell you. If your revolutionary cause is still precious to you, then you need to read this book even though (or because) it will piss you off. (Better to be pissed off than pissed on, I always say.) Now I need to add more of Mamatas's bibliography to my to-read list... Tag list: conspiracy parasitism icanhazcheeseburger internet meme penis panic wasp spider gentrification latah anarchist murder revolution sans nom amok alcatraz royal crown ballpark neuromodulating formal experiment disaffected white kids I JUST WANT YOUR HALF
At the risk of reviewing the author as much as the book: if you've followed the career, and perhaps more importantly, the widely varied interests of author Nick Mamatas (there's a reason some of his writings were collected as 3000 MPH In Every Direction At Once) for any substantial amount of time, you will find much that is familiar within Sensation, from Brattleboro to protest activism to virtual worlds to the Brood (just me? Fine, okay. This could easily have made this a hobo stew of a novel, but in fact Mamatas crafts a fully coherent and -- after its fashion -- plausible story so immediately prescient that it called the Occupy protests almost perfectly (how perfectly remains to be seen, I suppose.) At the same time it is, without question, a story told by spiders about mutant wasps changing the course of human affairs. It's also a book about humans changing the course of personal affairs, and a book about social movements, and about online social networks, and about New York, and... well. It's about a lot of things. But they're things with a great deal of verisimilitude and they are strung together in an entirely enjoyable fashion, and that's what you're looking for, right? Unless you're looking for a neat ending. In which case you've probably come to the wrong author, frankly.
I was sorely dissapointed with this book. The first 1/3rd was very disjointed and seemed more like an attempt by the author to prove how clever they were and how much they were into internet subculture. But not following through and actually using real movement names (er "Sans Nom" instead of Annonymous) made the author seem like they were afraid of offending someone. The second 1/3rd of the book wasn't too bad and I was nearly ready to forgive the first pary of the book when I finally got to re last 1/3rd and the horrid writing resumed. Oh and let's not get into the bad grammer and endless spelling errors. Did they even hire a proofreader? If so, they need fired. If there was a case for getting a refund for a bad book, this book would be that case.