Go, Mutants! has a lot going on. It’s set a genaration after pretty much every 50’s sci-fi/horror flick ever made actually happened. J!m, the son of a prominent but disgraced and deceased alien invader, is in high school, struggling with high school issues like how to fend off bullies and get a girl to go the big dance with him.
Two thematic thrusts vie with each other for prominence. On one hand, Doyle twists the familiar trope of adolescents with fantastic abilities. Usually there’s a strong component of wish-fulfillment in identifying with the protagonist of these stories: you are special and unique; you do carry the weight of the world; you’re not related to the intensely embarrassing creatures that raised you. Instead, Doyle pushes his characters’ natural anxieties about what the adolescent hormonal storm is doing to their bodies to absurd, even nightmarish extremes. Doyle is not particularly subtle about serving this up; one of his characters is revealed at one point to literally not have a penis; another suffers a malady in which secondary sexual characteristics assume unbalanced prominence.
The other major thematic aspect is more generalized socio-politcal satire. The actual monster/sci-fi flicks of the 50’s were clearly informed by the twin fears of nuclear annihilation and the Red Peril; in Doyle’s version the saucer folk literally replace these fears, with Joe McCarthy ranting against Hollywood’s secret aliens. Doyle’s PLEX, a sort of Internet with Orwellian and Tesla-esque attributes, arises, representing the loss of faith in the benevolence of our government with which often we endow the idealized retrospective view of the fifties.
Both of these angles seem well capable of supporting a novel on its their own, so it didn’t surprise me that Doyle, among other credits, has written for The Simpsons, a show which often managed to cram what on almost any other show would be an hour-long plot into a half hour. And also like The Simpsons, Go, Mutants! is ridiculously dense with explicit allusions to other creative works. The Day the Earth Stood Still is probably the most important touchpoint for Go, Mutants!, but there are sly nods to literally dozens of other sci-fi/horror movies — everything from classics like Invasion of the Body Snatchers to schlocky, sub-B-grade fare like Robot Monster. It’s hard for me to imagine anyone with a Mystery Science Theater 3000-flavored appreciation of cinema not having fun playing “spot-the-reference.” (I suspect nods to juvenile delinquent cinema are nearly as thick on the ground in Go, Mutants! as the sci-fi, but I’m not nearly as well versed in the arcana of that.)
I can’t write about this book without mentioning how gorgeous a physical object it is, and just how note-perfect the design choices are. The cover is a wonderful pastiche of one of the sleazier paperback houses (Beacon, for instance), right down to the relative position and size of “A novel by” and “Larry Doyle.” And the left-side drop-shadow. The opening page of each chapter is printed in white-on-black, with titles like “Science Gone Wild!” and “Charged with Million-Volt Excitement!” in the same screamingly dramatic typefaces as the posters and movie title frames they evoke –sometimes the crazy typefaces even creep into the main body of the text. (The book’s website, gomutants.com ably embodies its aesthetic, but might spoil some of the surprises.)
Doyle’s language is frequently colorful and dramatic. I clogged up the book with strips of paper identifying especially noteworthy passages, from the opening “Enter right, SCREAMING: THE GIRL, in high distress and heels,” to
The story on [her] was that she had been engaged to a soldier before the unpleasantness, and when her fiancé was devoured by a tree that ate women but was bi-curean, she went to work for the CIA, using the nom de guerre Ida Day, where she seduced and tortured hundreds of alien combatants, often at the same time, which led to her career in higher education.
Like most of Manhattan’s matrons, [she] had been a great beauty in her youth, but time and decapitation had taken their toll. Years of meanness were gouged into her face, which no amount of cosmetic troweling could ameliorate.
or just lovely coinages like the, “Rattarachirotacacean, a rat-spider-bat-crab from Mars.”
I loved a lot of things about this book, but still found it less than completely satisfying. I’m sure that’s partly because the opening handful of chapters set my expectations stratospherically high, but I think the book also has some pacing/structural issues. It would be stronger if it was shorter and punchier, or alternatively if the plot delivered more actual surprises, or perhaps even if Doyle didn’t hold his characters at such an emotional remove — the narrative voice is arch and omniscient, which seems appropriate, but is more than a little distancing.
needs more demons? Demons are the wrong genre, but I still felt like a tiny something was missing.