CLASSIFICATION: Sleepless is a classic crime/mystery story set in a post-apocalyptic milieu afflicted by a unique illness. Think Dennis Lehane meets José Saramago’s Blindess and P. D. James’ The Children of Men meets Richard K. Morgan.
FORMAT/INFO: Sleepless is 368 pages long divided over thirty numbered chapters and an Epilogue. Narration is in the first-person via a sixty-year-old, ex-military freelance mercenary named Jasper, and in both the third and first-person (in the form of journal entries) of undercover cop, Parker “Park” Haas. Sleepless is self-contained. January 12, 2010 marks the North American Hardcover publication of Sleepless via Ballantine Books. The UK edition will be published on April 1, 2010 via Gollancz.
ANALYSIS: The name Charlie Huston has become synonymous with hard-boiled crime noir and stylish pulp fiction, but as evidenced by the JOE PITT series and his work on the comic books, Moon Knight and Deathlok, the author is no stranger to speculative fiction. Now, in his newest effort, Sleepless, Charlie Huston delves even further into the realm of speculative fiction with a near-future thriller that takes place in a haunting, post-apocalyptic Los Angeles.
The year is only 2010, but the L.A. depicted in Sleepless is far removed from the city that we are familiar with. Or is it? New American Jesus insurgents (NAJi), gang wars, Thousand Storks mercenaries and martial law have turned Los Angeles into a war zone, while droughts and an economic collapse has resulted in food shortages, mandatory water rationing, too-expensive gas, and uncertain futures. Worst of all, the world is caught in the grip of a pandemic that has infected and killed millions with no cure in sight. For those afflicted by the Sleepless Disease, options remain limited with online gaming like the MMORPG Chasm Tide and the drug Dreamer, the two most popular pastimes. The problem with Dreamer is that demand outpaces supply by an insurmountable margin, resulting in a black market for the drug. Thus the stage is set for Charlie Huston’s Sleepless.
And what a stage it is! Easily one of the book’s main highlights, the world depicted in Sleepless is immediately relevant and thought-provoking because it uses topics and themes (terrorism, martial law, pandemic scares, social networking, online gaming, food shortages, economic depression, celebrity/wealth status, social upheaval, etc) ripped straight from our headlines and which already impact or could impact our lives in the near future. More impressively, Charlie Huston does a spectacular job of making such a future frighteningly believable. In particular, I was impressed by the author’s efforts in examining how a disease like the Sleepless Prion might realistically impact the world and vice versa, such as certain services catering to the Sleepless demographic or online gaming becoming much more than a game with Chasm Tide characters, artifacts and in-world gold possessing almost equal value in real-world currency.
Another highlight of Sleepless, and one of Charlie Huston’s strengths, is the top-notch characterization. Park, the sixty-year-old mercenary Jasper, Lady Chizu, Hounds, Park’s wife — each of the individuals that appear in the book are carefully crafted characters defined by the author’s ability to make them feel real, interesting, and unique, whether it’s Park’s overwhelming sense of justice conflicting with his duty to family, Jasper’s apocalypse collection, or Lady Chizu’s need for anyone in her presence to have their hands always pocketed. Of all of the characters that Charlie has written, these are not his most memorable or original, but on an emotional level the characters in Sleepless, specifically Park and Jasper, could be his most poignant creations yet.
Plotting is where Charlie Huston’s crime noir influences and pulp fiction style come into play with a story that includes an undercover cop trying to prevent a drug war and a freelance mercenary hired to retrieve an item of importance. Factor in one of the world’s ten wealthiest men in the world, murder, diplomatic pressure, themes like family versus duty, and recognizable plot twists, and the story is a familiar one, though compelling nonetheless.
Compared to Charlie Huston’s other books, Sleepless is somewhat of a departure. For one, there is the previously mentioned near-future setting. Secondly, the novel adheres to a more traditional format, with the use of chapters and quotation marks as opposed to speech denoted by hyphens and the lack of chapter/part breaks which I’ve come to associate with the author. Finally, the narration in Sleepless is driven by exposition instead of dialogue, which has become a staple of Charlie Huston’s novels. Don’t get me wrong. There’s still plenty of dialogue in the book and it remains piercing as ever:
“What’s gone wrong? With the world? Why aren’t people trying to fix it?”
“I believe it is because they don’t believe there is anything to fix. They have been raised to fatalism and slaughter. A feeling of powerlessness pervades the average person’s interactions with the world at large. They want it comfortable and familiar. But they’ve stopped thinking about tomorrow in any tangible sense. They don’t believe in it any longer. Because they don’t want to think about it. How hard it will be. For the ones left.”
It’s just that in Sleepless, the dialogue is not the driving element behind the book, and it also lacks the verve, wit and humor of past efforts. Personally, I felt the exposition-driven narrative was a welcome change of pace, although things were a bit confusing at the beginning of the novel when I was trying to figure out the different point-of-views, and the pacing occasionally suffers.
CONCLUSION: In his previous books, Charlie Huston established himself as a writer of incredible talent, vision and imagination. In Sleepless, the author is better than ever, delivering a novel that not only displays his mastery over characters and dialogue, but also shows off his versatility, including the ability to challenge readers cerebrally while also pulling on their heartstrings. In short, Sleepless is a mesmerizing, award-worthy novel that is quite possibly the best thing that Charlie Huston has ever written.