Monday, February 11, 2013

Jam by Yahtzee Croshaw

Imagine the invention of the printing press.  There must have been a time and a person – although I don’t know when it was or who it was, though this would be interesting to know – who began making a living by writing about other books.  The first literary critic, if you will.  And this paradigm has continued on through the ages with new media, up until the present point where I write my personal thoughts about books on my blog.  Not professionally, of course, although the world supports professional book critics, movie critics, television critics, and now video game critics.

As a relatively new form of entertainment, the video game industry has only recently started to support what I’d call truly professional reviewers, as distinguished from sycophantic hacks or industry created material (Nintendo Power of my youth, I’m looking at you).  For a while playing video games marked you as an eleven year old boy or a cheeto-encrusted basement denizen, and while these stereotypes probably actually do have some basis in reality even today, there’s a lot of us that grew up around gaming and are essentially respectable citizens of adult age who still like to play a little bit.  All of this is by way of introducing Croshaw, who has been reviewing a game every Wednesday over at The Escapist since 2007 and is also a game designer and author in his own right.  He’s not the 800-pound gorilla of the industry (that would be the Penny Arcade guys) but he’s funny and creative and he’s got his own niche.

This is his sophomore novel, following up on his 2010 work Mogworld.  I didn’t have really strong feelings about Mogworld but I did generally enjoy it; there was quite a lot of good humor in there, but it was somewhat weak in characterization.  Strangely enough, Jam has nothing whatsoever to do with Mogworld or video games in general except for one of the characters who works in the industry and is trying to retrieve one of his latest builds.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m tired of zombie apocalypses. So this is at least a nice change of pace in that regard, as the city of Brisbane has gone through a . . . blob-ocolypse, I guess.  The title is Jam and that’s what the characters call it too, but I kept thinking of The Blob when reading it.  There’s a reddish, fruity smelling layer of gelatinous goop on the ground.  It also dissolves all organic material on contact.  Since it swept through town during morning rush hour, pretty much everyone with a regular job is now gone, and the novel opens with it already there.  The protagonist, Travis, finds out about the unpleasant properties of the jam when it almost immediately dissolves one of his flatmates, who is just trying to get to the gym, poor bastard.

Most of the book deals with humorous vignettes as we assemble the usual rag-tag bunch of survivors along with the world’s most sociable Goliath bird-eating tarantula (read: not at all sociable in any way), which Travis picks up early on and carries with him.  Also included are American agents X and Y, who are possibly the world’s worst liars and provide useful exposition by their suspiciously accurate denials.  Are they responsible for the apocalypse?  If so, was it on orders?  Is it just Brisbane that is afflicted, or the whole world?  All these questions and more are eventually answered.

Like most of us, the survivors here have no particular survival skills, and furthermore their inability to reach the ground makes their future survival tenuous at best.  There’s a lot of examination here about how really unfit most of these people really are for post-apocalyptic survival, and much of it is pretty funny.  At the same time, there’s also a lot of, you know, people getting horribly dissolved.  I guess that could be funny, but at least in my opinion that’s actually pretty horrifying.  At least I think I’d be horrified if this was going on around me (at least it is mercifully quick – over in seconds and not hours-or-days long Troma-style horrorshow stuff).  I know that I can really enjoy horror comedy – This Book is Full of Spiders may have been my favorite book of 2012 – but for some reason it didn’t quite gel for me here.

In trying to organize my thoughts here, I realize that, again, I don’t have super strong feelings about this one either good or bad.  There are a lot of quotable and amusing parts here, and some really squirmworthy parts as well.  So, that’s good.  But he’s also got a layer of ironic detachment about a mile wide, and that prevents the reader from really caring about Travis or anyone else for that matter.  If the author doesn’t really care if the characters make it then it’s certainly hard for me to get worked up about it.  I'm not sure if he just isn't very good at characterization, or if he feels that someone will make fun of him if it looks like he's actually caring about his characters.  In either case, that was something I didn't like about Mogworld and I didn't like it here either.

In my opinion, Yahtzee has a great book in him somewhere – he’s certainly got the chops for it – but this one isn’t it.  At the same time, if you only read one book about carnivorous jam this year, this should probably be the one.

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