Sunday, July 29, 2012

Dinocalypse Now by Chuck Wendig

What's the perfect thing to read at the end of Hugo voting season, when the pressure is off and I no longer have to carefully consider worthiness for awards? How about a book with a blurb like this:
When the Century Club is called in to prevent the assassination of FDR, it's just another day on the job -- but what they discover puts not just the President, but the entire world in jeopardy.

With psychic dinosaurs taking over Manhattan and beyond, it's up to Sally Slick, Jet Black, Mack Silver, and the other Centurions to save humanity -- from extinction!
Sounds pretty ridiculous, right? Turns out it was even more ridiculous than that, in exactly the right way.

Dinocalypse Now begins when the aforementioned psychic dinosaurs (!) attack a public appearance of President Roosevelt in Manhattan. The Centurions Sally Slick, Jet Black and Mack Silver work out pretty quickly that the dinosaurs aren't after FDR, they're after the heroes themselves. It's all part of the Conqueror Ape's plan to take over the world -- knock out the heroes first, and the rest will be easy.

Naturally Sally, Jet and Mack escape by the skin of their teeth, along with a few other Centurions from around the world: Professor Khan, the gorilla from Oxford; Amelia Stone, the two-fisted heroine from Paris; and Benjamin Hu, the mystical detective from Hong Kong. As I'm sure you've guessed, the heroes have to regroup, work out what exactly is going on, and save the world.

A while ago, I wrote a short post on how much I love stories that don't seem to care whether they're weighty, or important, or deep. They're just in it for the fun, and that makes them joyful. In that post I was specifically praising "Zeppelin City" by Michael Swanwick and Eileen Gunn, but pretty much everything I wrote then could just as easily apply to Dinocalypse Now.

If pulp heroes duking it out with psychic dinosaurs, intelligent apes, and Neanderthals from Hollow Earth doesn't seem like your sort of thing, you're probably not going to enjoy this book. Dinocalypse Now is the distilled essence of that sort of thing, carried off with considerable flair, and to really enjoy it I think you have to buy in.

The book moves really fast (as it must). It has a large cast of characters, and yet Wendig does a really great job at giving them all an arc, and making them all feel unique. It's like the style of the story changes from character to character -- mystical detective to educated ape to all-American hero -- and it's all done economically, while the plot careens along.

I tend to think this kind of writing requires considerable skill to really carry off. There are so many roadblocks that have to be overcome. The premise is silly, and I suspect the natural tendency in a writer is to cringe at it, or apologise for it, or undermine it. Some of those techniques might even work, but you're going to end up with a totally different story. One with considerably less wide-eyed fun.

It's worth noting that Dinocalypse Now ends on a huge cliffhanger. Ordinarily I'd consider that a mark against it, but it's hard to imagine it ending any other way ("tune in next time...!"). Thanks to a very successful Kickstarter campaign there are two more books to be written by Chuck Wendig, and a further four starring some of the same characters written by other authors*.

I realise I'm gushing, perhaps more than a pulp novel may seem to warrant, but I loved this book. Remember that good-versus-fun thing I spoke about a while back? Dinocalypse Now is the absolute definition of fun. It's not perfect, it's not deep, it's quite silly, and it certainly isn't for everyone. It's particularly not for people who take their reading very seriously. But it is wonderfully executed gonzo pulp, and I eagerly look forward to the next book in the series.

* Those authors are Stephen Blackmoore, Brian Clevinger (the author of the stylistically similar, and very excellent, Atomic Robo), Harry Connolly, and C. E. Murphy. It'll be interesting to see how these authors handle the characters that Wendig has so neatly captured in Dinocalypse Now.

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