by Nathaniel Tapley
You should read Sensation now. I’m not kidding. Right now. Stop reading this, start reading Sensation. Anyone still here for this sentence has failed themselves.
Nick Mamata’s novel is a razor-sharp look at the modern world. It’s bafflingly current and important. It’s as if he foresaw the Occupy movement before the first tents went up. The lack of stated aims, the surplus of enthusiasm, and the taste for dramatic public statements exploited through social media are all there. As I read the book in early December of 2011, it was clear that Mamatas has a firm grasp of the modern world. Around its throat.
There are wasps that lay their eggs in caterpillars, changing their behavior so that even as the wasp larvae chew their way out of them to pupate, the caterpillars stand guard over those for whom they are just a fat, green larder. There are other wasps that lay their eggs in spiders, forcing them to weave a special web on which they can build a cocoon. In the world of Sensation there are wasps that lay their eggs in humans, forcing them to act for the good of wasps rather than people. In the world of Sensation, that explains a lot of human history.
Sensation presents an ongoing war between parasitic wasps (Hymenoepimecis sp.), and the species of spider that loathes them. The spiders spin humans of indeterminate ethnicity out of webbing to ride around in, and do their best to foil the wasps’ plans. The wasps lay eggs inside people, and control their behavior. Either manipulated by spiders or mind-altered by ovipositing wasps, the future doesn’t look particularly bright for the human race.
But then, as the novel hints, it probably shouldn’t. The book savages the hopes, the pretensions, the self-importance, and the ridiculousness of the first world at the beginning of the twenty-first century. It’s a pitiless look at human beings, and is both hilarious and perspicacious.
The book captivated me from the moment it had a protest movement spawned by a They Might Be Giants lyric (I shan’t tell you which one). It’s the first of many examples of the bizarre and the profound being in close proximity. Mamatas expertly combines pop culture with satire with really good jokes.
Its wit is razor-sharp, and it will be a lucky reader who escapes without cutting themselves on its barbs. From again GenXers to lefty hipsters to federal agents, Mamatas has seen you, he’s understood you, and here you are in the service of parasitic hymenoptera. Or their arachnid foes.
There’s so much to love in this book: its playfulness, its following of a relentless dream-logic, the feeling that this is genre fiction’s answer to De Lillo or Pynchon. However, space opera, it is not. It’s a knowing, brilliant look at the world through a satirical conceit. It is science fiction in the way Gulliver’s Travels is, or Stranger in a Strange Land is, or 1984 is.
If you’re looking for titanic space battles between futuristic civilizations, you won’t find them. If you’re looking for well-developed alien cultures on exciting new worlds, you won’t find them. If you’re looking for straightforward narrative prose from an omniscient narrator, you won’t find it. You’ll find in Sensation something more exciting. And a race of sentient, kickass spiders in human costumes made of webbing.
It’s a fun book. It’s like Lester Bangs whacking the X-Files in the back of the neck with a spade, and then burying the corpse in a grave lined with newspaper clippings from 2011. It’s probably the best explanation of 2011 that we’ve had yet.
If you’re still reading this, and you didn’t go and do it earlier, go and do it now. Read Sensation now. Right now. I’m still not kidding. It’s all right, I’ll wait . . .
See? Told you.