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Publisher: Bluejack

March, 2009 : Review:

Of Monsters and Metaphors

Review of Monster by A. Lee Martinez

A. Lee Martinez
Orbit Books
304 pages

The chief trope of much Occult fiction is the seemingly endless variety of threat pulled from nether regions like contorted rabbits from the hat of a diabolic magician. Demons, ogres, werecritters of all phylogenic composition, the specially empowered and mythically engendered, all form an army of challenges to be met by means equally occult, arcane, and irrational. Science and its byproducts never work. If we understand something, it seems to say, then we have it wrong, and here's a little something out of the realm of superstition to demonstrate just how wrong we have it. The hero must always step outside the bounds of physics, biology, and often even psychology in order to deal with the malevolence of what are essentially nightmares.

This can be enormously entertaining, particularly when the onslaught of the twisted and supernatural stands in for the daily unpredictability of life. This is one of the main pleasures of the whole Buffy phenomenon.

It is also the main problem with such stories, as the nearly infinite variation of infernal manifestations often overwhelms all other elements of good fiction. The shock value, the novelty, the cleverness of the assorted creatures substitutes for meaningful conflict. It becomes little more than a cosmic smackdown between competing hats and bigger and meaner rabbits pulled out of a supernatural habberdashery that lacks any legitimate rationale. The escalation of force versus force, like a runaway arms race, becomes the primary method by which plot is driven and rapprochement achieved.


A. Lee Martinez avoids this pitfall in Monster by examining, in part, the hat itself and the reasoning behind it. Monster, the title character, works for a department called Cryptobiological Containment and Rescue Service. His job is to capture and secure these odd beings that manifest occasionally. Work has been slow. Magic is disappearing and his prey with it. Until, that is, he answers a call to retrieve a Yeti loose in a neighborhood market and in the process meets Judy, who is at the center of a major cosmic convulsion. The cause of this event is a being called Lotus who is older than the universe and is attempting to guarantee the ultimate collapse of our reality.

Monster's life is, to say the least, not great. He has a girlfriend from Hell—literally—an enchantment that causes him to change color after every time he sleeps, and mounting bills. He doesn't exactly love his job, but he's good at it so he sticks with it and never looks for anything else. He's borderline misanthropic and his main confident is an animated piece of paper named Chester.

Judy's life is not much better. She finds the Yeti in the freezer section of her workplace, she makes the call that brings Monster into her life, and the subsequent series of calamities overturns what little stability she had managed, which was never much. She thinks she's finished with it all until trolls begin emerging from a closet in her apartment and she has to call in Monster again. Their entanglement thereafter seems to reinforce the complete lack of control that is their main point of shared characteristic.

Life for both of them is a series of situations they neither invite nor effectively manage, basically one damned thing after another. Which is neatly mirrored by the sudden surge of magical manifestations with which Monster must cope, both professionally and personally, finally forcing both of them to come to grips with a Bigger Picture explanation of reality.

As you may guess, "Monster" is a comedy, and Martinez plays his tropes very well, but at the core of the novel is an attempt to give the whole Occult metaphor a more solid footing, employing ideas out of superstring theory, quantum mechanics, and Omega Point concepts of cyclic universes. The language never strays into the scientific, which would be out of keeping with the almost jocular voice Martinez maintains, but the ideas are there. The world-building is reminiscent of Poul Anderson's "Operation Chaos." Keeping everything firmly centered on the two more-or-less ordinary people (one of whom turns out to be anything but ordinary) lifts "Monster" out of the froth of magic for magic's sake.

Copyright © 2009, Mark Tiedemann. All Rights Reserved.

About Mark Tiedemann

Mark W. Tiedemann has been publishing science fiction, short stories and novels, since 1990. His novel, Compass Reach, first in the Secantis Sequence, was shortlisted for the Philip K. Dick Award in 2002, and his most recent novel, Remains, was shortlisted for the James Tiptree Jr Award in 2006. For the last four years he has been president of the Missouri Center for the Book, the Missouri state affiliate of the Library of Congress Center for the Book. He lives in St. Louis with his companion Donna and their resident alien lifeform, Coffey.


Mar 6, 04:50 by Bluejack
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