This was on my reading list because I’m trying to read all of the 2011 Hugo best-novel nominees before the awards are announced in a couple of months. Which is to say, this book was nominated for the 2011 Hugo.
And it took me a long time to figure out why because, in a fairly objective way, it’s just not a very good book. The writing style is astoundingly simplistic. The writing never chooses to rise above a middle-school vocabulary, and most sentences are of the standard "subject-verb-adjective-object" construction. Based on the writing, I’d assume that it was intended as a young-adult novel if it weren’t for the random bouts of profanity and slightly creepy discussions of the female protagonists’ underclothes. Since there’s no real explanation for it (not that I want to encourage the idea that writing intended for the young adult market should be boring), it seems that the unchallenging and staid writing was simply accidental.
In my quest to figure out why this book is Hugo-nominated, I next stopped to consider the world-building. An imaginative, rich world can make up for bad writing. But the world falls down as well: the author says something about how the vast majority of the population is too scared to leave their houses, but doesn’t offer an explanation for why there are fully staffed and stocked restaurants and movie theaters and convention centers. It tries to set up a weird dynamic between "nothing has changed in the world" and "everything has changed in the world". This could have been successful, if it had played on an undercurrent of terror in a populace who was just trying to go about their lives; but instead, it just seems confused like the author would occasionally forget what book she was writing.
I think this is most clearly shown ni the way that the entire book is about a thriving and ingenious blogosphere existing in an America where the idea of freedom of the press has long since been abandoned. The idea that all journalists are required to be appropriately licensed (and that there are different licenses which allow those journalists to tell certain stories!) goes completely against the idea of properly licensed bloggers uncovering a government-wide conspiracy. They simply wouldn’t be allowed to start looking and no one would think it was strange ("Guess they didn’t have the proper licenses…").
This, it turns out, leads into why I think this book was well received by the Hugo voters. It’s a book about some perky and attractive bloggers getting out and having an adventure. It’s about the bloggers always being the smartest people in the room, being the only ones devoted to the truth, and the only ones smart enough and dedicated enough to look around and leave no stone unturned. In short, this is a Mary Sue novel which lets every blogger out there fantasize about being the only one who can fight both zombies and the establishment in one go. As if that weren’t absurd enough, the bloggers also happen to be universally loved and trusted because they’re so incredibly noble.
SPOILER ALERT Do you want to know how to tell the bad guy in this book? He’s the one who doesn’t like the bloggers. The only one.
So, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that this book has a large fan base on the Internet. But ultimately, such undiscriminating tastes will not help the real-life bloggers to become as attractive and successful as the bloggers in the book. But then, I suppose that’s what the wish-fulfillment aspect is all about.
This is a terribly disappointing book to have earned the words "Hugo Nominated" on its cover.
[Edited To Add: Reading back over this review, it seems like I’m denigrating bloggers to a large extent. That was never my intention. Instead, I’m denigrating the bloggers for whom the Mary Sue of this book (is there a different word that means “Mary Sue for a collective group instead of just the author?”) is so effective that they nominate it en masse for one of speculative fiction’s highest honors. I know bloggers of all shapes and sizes: attractive, ugly, young, old, outgoing, misanthropic, and everything in between. They’re all great people and I admire some of them very much. I personally fall under the “young and ugly, misanthropically socially anxious, and thoroughly incapable” category (though I’m not much of a blogger these days).
The point is, I’m happy being that. It’s who I am, and I long ago came to terms with it. Nosce te ipsum. I find the characters in this book offensive because they seem to exist purely as a way for me to escape who I am. I’m perfectly okay with escapism from where I am. But I think it’s rather unhealthy to try to promote escapism from ourselves entirely. And even if I didn’t think that way, I certainly wouldn’t celebrate a bad book because it offered me that escape. A bad book is a bad book.]