I'm surprised Martin Martin's On The Other Side got shortlisted for a Clarke Award. To be sure, it brings a unique narrative voice to the dystopian future canon. But it's also derivative and muddled. Spoilers!
In Martin Martin's On The Other Side by Mark Wernham, it's about 40 years from now, and everything has gone dystopian disco. It's like a mash-up of 1984 and Brave New World, as if Orwell's and Huxley's dueling visions have finally merged: the government keeps everyone under ubiquitous surveillance and crushes human potential - but there's also lots of great sex and drugs. Instead of Starbucks, there's a chain of coffee shops called Starfucks, where sex and drugs are readily available along with your coffee.
If that sounds a bit idiotic, well... that's sort of the point. It's an idiotic future, and we're invited into it by an idiotic narrator, Jensen Interceptor.
Jensen is a low-level government stooge, who loves monster trucks and big-screen televisions, and Porn Disco and taking bizarre drugs of all types so he can have orgies at Starfucks. Until one day, he stumbles on a group of Martin Martinists, the followers of an obscure television psychic who died in 2008. He goes off to investigate and infiltrate this scruffy group of radicals and "lezzies," but then he starts seeing the mysterious Martin Martin himself.
As the book goes on, we start to question whether Jensen Interceptor actually is Martin Martin, who also may be a guy named Emile who died in World War II. In a kind of Scanner Darkly riff, Jensen becomes both the investigator and the subject of the investigation, and reality starts to blur with fantasy. Soon, we're not really sure what's real and whether Jensen is just a dream that Martin Martin is having as he hovers near death, or vice versa.
The other work that Martin Martin owes an obvious debt to is Terry Gilliam's Brazil - Jensen Interceptor is like a much more idiotic version of Sam Lowry, sent out to bedevil poor honest people in the name of a fumbling bureaucracy. Like Lowry, he tries to navigate and justify the ways of a state that owns him and erases people close to him, in the name of fighting mostly fictitious terrorists. And like Lowry, he winds up getting weird lectures about the nature of the state and the need to keep order in the face of encroaching craziness. He also falls in love with a beautiful seemingly-innocent woman in the course of his investigations, and has weird problems with the plumbing in his apartment, leading to a kind of sewage disaster.
If Martin Martin's On The Other Side is sounding a bit derivative... that's not entirely misleading. It does have great moments of brilliance, however. For one thing, I really like the idea that a television psychic who actually starts to demonstrate psychic powers would pose the biggest threat to a repressive government - because Martin Martin can see the truth about the world, including who's guilty and who's lying, he has the capacity to blow the lid off all of society's secrets. And it turns out the surveillance state is built as much on protecting secrets as it is on discovering what people have to hide.
Also, the other thing I really loved about Martin Martin was its narrative voice. At first blush, Jensen is just another moron speaking in future dialect, with lots of references to random drugs called things like "boris," and phrases like "spank pad." It's got that thing that a lot of first-person narrators have, where the reader is frequently way ahead of the main character - especially when he's just done a fistful of drugs and is trying to be smart. And yet, the narrator also has moments of incredible lyricism. He turns out to have a gift for empathy that rivals Martin Martin's gift for clairvoyance. He'll meet random characters and spend a page or two imagining what it must be like to be them - at one point, he's eating some eels that a homeless person has roasted, and he's picturing what it must be like to be an eel, swimming in river mud and minding your own business, until someone grabs you out and nails you to a board, then skins you alive. It's a weird trait for a government enforcer to have, this awareness of the suffering of others.
There were many moments during Martin Martin when I felt the book was reaching for true greatness, and it was going somewhere amazing. And then those moments, inexorably, slipped away. We revisit the same incidents in the life of Martin Martin over and over again, from slightly different perspectives, until his life starts to feel as redundant as his name. And the book's ending, which I won't give away, feels like a major letdown.
All in all, I liked parts of Martin Martin quite a bit - and I could see why some British critics were so enthralled with it, and why it got that nomination. But my main thought during and after reading it was: I'm quite curious to read Mark Wernham's second novel, to see how his storytelling matures.
Martin Martin's On The Other Side was nominated for a Clarke Award. Read more of io9's coverage of 2009's book award nominees here.