Sleepless, by Charlie Huston

ebgwa's review

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that it needs heavy editing.

xterminal's review

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Charlie Huston, Sleepless (Ballantine, 2010)

I started three books on the same day, two Vine books and a third I'd bought with birthday money. I figured Sleepless would probably be the one that would get relegated to the back of the line, as I knew nothing about Charlie Huston save that The Mystical Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death has gotten a lot of good press this year and that it had an interesting-sounding premise. But Friday night I had a large block of reading time available, so I ended up alternating chapters in the three (after finishing two books I was almost done with). By the time I was finished with that, Sleepless had won out over an Elder Scrolls novel and the first book Robin Hobb has set in the Liveship Traders world in six years. That takes some doing, on both counts; this Huston guy has definitely got something going for him.

Sleepless is an alternate-universe noir in which the (absolutely real) disease Fatal Familial Insomnia has somehow mutated into a new disease: sleepless, commonly abbreviated SLP. While FFI is genetic (and limited to fifty families, as far as anyone knows), SLP is horrendously communicable; one in ten people worldwide, in Huston's world, have been diagnosed with the disease. There is only one medication that is capable of helping, Dreamer (or Dr33m3r if you're into that sort of thing). With 10% of the world's population entirely unable to sleep, the rule of law has almost vanished, and worldwide distractions have taken hold (including Chasm Tide, an MMORPG that bears some resemblance to World of Warcraft). We see this world from two different perspectives. One is Park, a small-time drug dealer who's suddenly gotten big-time and may have an in to the black market in Dreamer that everyone is sure exists, but no one has actually been able to gain any evidence of. The other is Jasper, an obsessive-compulsive hit man. Their paths cross when the owners of a Chasm Tide gold farm are murdered. Jasper is hired by Lady Chizu, the head of the Thousand Storks mercenary company, to retrieve a travel drive located in the gold farm; Park was the dealer for a number of members of the gold farm. When Park discovers the massacre while making a delivery, he pockets the travel drive to see if it contains any evidence that may lead him to the killer. This, of course, puts Jasper on his tail.

The travel drive, however, is a secondary player in this novel, as is the main plot; Sleepless is all about worldbuilding a society that's close to our own, with a single quirk that doesn't exist in reality. What happens to the world if you flip one switch? Huston has obviously spent a lot of time thinking about this question, and because of that, the alternate Los Angeles he builds here is almost as real as our own (the only literary analogue I can think of recently that impressed me as much was the London depicted in China Mieville's King Rat). From there, Huston seems to have adopted the storytelling mode Faulkner used when writing As I Lay Dying: take a bunch of normal people and heap as much misery on them as possible, and then see what they do. And he does it very, very well.

I've already dropped some very big names here in comparison, and I'm going to do it one more time: this novel somehow put me in mind both of Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash in the way he actually integrates the sci-fi elements into things without them seeming like he's just showing off some new toys (think about, say, the very cool but useless map scene in Babylon A. D. as a good example of “showing off toys”) and of Cormac McCarthy's The Road (to which this could very well be a prequel; McCarthy never does tell us what killed the world) in the rhythm and flow of Huston's language, though Huston is far more accessible than McCarthy could ever be. All the comparisons, from the standpoint of the quality of Huston's writing, are eminently justified. This guy is very good at what he does.

If the book has problems, they are all in the area of pacing, as Huston slows things down on a fairly regular basis (this usually happens when Jasper is describing how he sees the world, in his obsessively detail-oriented way). The reason for this becomes clear at the end of the book, and it's a pleasant surprise, but that doesn't entirely erase the feeling of having to slog through a passage here and there. Still, as far as crime fiction goes, Charlie Huston has given the world a good piece of it. Sleepless earned itself a place on my 25 Best Reads of the Year list without any trouble at all. ****

bhalpin's review

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I revere Charlie Huston and recommend the Joe Pitt books every chance I get. It would probably be easy for him to keep cranking out short, taut crime thrillers, so I appreciate the fact that he's gone for something more ambitious here.

Rollercoaster plot momentum is kind of a Huston trademark, but this one takes a long time to get going. He's also writing from multiple points of view, which adds needless confusion at the beginning and kept me from getting really involved with the characters.

The world building, so masterfully done in the Joe Pitt books, felt a little clumsy to me here. I appreciate the ambition, but I'm sorry to say this was a miss for me. Abandoned after 100 pages.

carol26388's review

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This should have been right up my alley. I really enjoy Huston's writing and story approach, and I have a fondness for end-of-the-world stories, but this was a resounding 'meh.'

Usually, Huston is skilled at piquing my interest in characters lacking in likable traits or heroic qualities. I just could not develop any concern for the main character, Parker Hass (Parker. Totally generic name), who seems like a full-on Heroic-But-Loner-Boy-Scout, which you would think would be even more likable than a slacker (Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death) or a nihilistic vampire (the Joe Pitt series). But no. He was blander than white bread toast with margarine.

The narrative is three-fold, switching between the third-person view of our hero, the first-person view of our hero, and the view of a Antihero-Loner-Art-Appreciating-Assassin (a more common trope in movies). Somewhere in here, I might have cared, except I didn't. I was mostly bored.

And the plague? Again, I love me a good disease, and real diseases are totally scary, so it should be easy to tap into an imaginary one, right? I mean, c'mon, zombie fan here. But the 'disease' of sleeplessness was just... sleep-inducing. Maybe Huston is such a great writer that the power of suggestion worked on me. Could be. I do know from my own episodes of sleep-deprivation or poor sleep-quality (man, do I ever dislike night shifts), that sleep-deprivation is an insidious and terrible thing. Except the horror of it rarely develops, really. It relies on Parker's infant and his sleep-deprived wife to really get at the delusions. It should be worse, it really should; perhaps Parker is so guarded from his own emotions around it, his tightly contained fear, that it's hard to believe he is scared.

I'm afraid I'm kind of soured on this book for a while, and will throw it into the pile to one day re-read. Meanwhile, it has me thinking about re-reading Huston's other works to recapture that fond feeling.

waynewaynus's review

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Amusing and entertaining worth a read.

jhpj's review

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Good Sci-Fi. Took me a while to get into it and figure out the different points of view, but a great read once I settled in.

scotto's review

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a dark book with an unexpectedly moving ending - in the near future, 10% of the population are afflicted with fatal insomnia that claim its victims over the course of up to a year of increasingly dreamlike delusion. as society collapses, a drug called "Dreamer" emerges that can offer temporary soothing to the afflicted, but no cure presents itself. the story follows an undercover cop in LA attempting to penetrate a black market "Dreamer" distribution ring, unknowingly pursued by a calculating assassin with a secret agenda. grindingly dystopian, yes, but the characters are exceedingly well-drawn and the resolution is both satisfying and poetic.

babblingbooks's review

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An oddly appropriate novel to start reading on a midnight flight to Tokyo. I enjoyed the shifting styles of this book as is jumped from one perspective to another, their 'voices' slowly becoming more indistinguishable as their stories became more intertwined. The main character is a drug dealer in a world where Sleepless is an insomnia-like disease gripping the population. This perspective alone makes it very different from any books in this genre. Add to that the ruthless but aging mercenary as the second protagonist and I was pleasantly surprised overall.

The plot is relatively simple but the execution is refreshing, and it helped me sleep, so 4 stars it is!