Philip K. Dick has had a huge influence on science fiction literature—but it’s pretty rare that you read a new book that manages to channel Dick’s paranoid, reality-warping mojo. So Black Hole by Bucky Sinister is a delight for all kinds of reasons. Spoilers ahead...

Bucky Sinister has been a fixture on San Francisco’s literary scene for years, doing insane, edgy poetry about drugs, robots, superheroes, and those moments when the walls of reality seem to melt around you. (We raved about his poetry before.) And for the past several years, he’s been a comedian, as well as the author of a punk rock addiction recovery book, Get Up. [And full disclosure: I know Sinister through that same local literary scene.]

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I mention this backstory because there’s a huge autobiographical component to Black Hole, in the best PKD tradition. This is very much a book about being fucked up on weird drugs in an off-kilter, unreal version of San Francisco, and it draws on Sinister’s own narrative of being an addict and alcoholic before he finally got clean and sober. The book starts with a terrible portrait of what it’s like to go from being a young, swinging dude who’s partying with his friends, to being an old druggie loser. In fact, the first sentence of Black Hole is “Then one day, you’re the creepy old guy with the drugs.” (You can read the first few pages of the novel here.)

“But then you catch your reflection, and you’re the freak in the corner of some party where everyone’s half your age,” Sinister writes. “Sure, it’s cool that you’re there, you brought your own drugs and your shit’s so much better than what they usually have, but someone asks you what the 90s were like, and you’re telling them about the Pearl Jam Nirvana Red Hot Chili Peppers New Year’s show that you blew off because it was too mainstream, and someone else tells you that was the year they were born, and everyone looks at each other and laughs.” Ouch.

So Black Hole starts out as a mostly realist novel about being a drug addict in San Francisco, and realizing that not only are you suddenly not 21 any more, but also the city has changed a lot in the past 20 years while you were on a bender. But slowly, the book becomes weirder and more science fictional—and not in a “oh, the main character is hallucinating” way, but in a seamless fashion that feels somewhat futuristic and somewhat like heightened reality.

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Chuck, the novel’s main character, manages to hold down a low-stress job with a biotech startup that clones miniature whales for insanely wealthy people who want to have a whale in their aquariums at home. (A miniature whale is still pretty frickin huge, though.) And he jaunts around from club to club and dealer to dealer, trying the newest, most bizarre drugs that the designer-drug makers can concoct.

Until Chuck finally discovers the drug called “Black Hole,” which gives the book its title and its theme. The actual side effects of Black Hole don’t become apparent for a while, but by the time they do, it’s already part of a whole chain of events that is causing everything to fall apart, on a fucking ontological level.

But the main point of this book is just a razor-sharp portrayal, livened by brilliant prose, of what it’s like to be stuck on the outside in a world that’s moving way too quickly. A lot of the book’s narrative power comes from the sense of constant disorientation, of not knowing how you got to someplace and where your shoes went and why you smell so bad.

In fact, you come away from Black Hole feeling as though reality is a lot more fragile than most of us like to think—something that you also get from a lot of Dick’s best work. And that there’s not that much difference, in the end, between an unraveling of causation and actually losing your goddamn mind. Either way, things stop making sense and following logically, and it’s sort of a toss-up.

All of the characters in Black Hole are deeply damaged, in ways that start out seeming pathetic but slowly become more creepy. Which leads me to one warning about this book: Sinister definitely reaches for a lot of grotesque imagery, and is happy to treat extreme body-builders and massively overweight people with the same degree of prurience verging on body horror. So if you’re sensitive to intense depictions of non-standard body types, this might bother you. This is also a book in which a man (who was allegedly brainwashed by the NSA) shows up naked in the street, covered with feces, and later has his arms nonconsensually amputated due to alleged gangrene. As ZYZZYVA says, “there’s something to offend everyone in Black Hole.”

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But if you love Philip K. Dick—or hell, if you love any kind of science fiction that blends autobiographical material with world-melting strangeness—then you should definitely pick up Black Hole. It’s one of the weirdest books I’ve read lately, but it’s also compulsive reading, that kept me turning the pages at top speed. And the writing is not only beautifully honed, but intensely quotable.

Get Black Hole from Amazon, BN, Indiebound, Powell’s or Worldcat

Top image: Valencia St., 2011, photo by Jessica Watson/Flickr


Charlie Jane Anders is the author of All The Birds in the Sky, coming in January from Tor Books. Follow her on Twitter, and email her.

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