The short version: Brain Thief absolutely floored me. If you think you’d like a post-modern noir that’s dark and funny, packed with quirky characters and hair-raising thrills, and has some near-future science fiction flavor, it’s run-do-not-walk time. Bernal Hayden-Rumi works for a wealthy eccentric who funds oddball research projects, something is going identifiably wonky with one as the novel opens, and I encourage you to let the novel spring all its other surprises on you without my interference.
On the fifth page of of Brain Thief there’s an editing gaffe that had me staring at three short paragraphs for a good minute trying to work out what Jablokov had intended to convey. This is noteworthy because it’s such an aberration. If there were any rough patches later on, I was far too caught up to notice; Brain Thief ‘s tightly coiled plot is like some finely machined watch in the act of exploding.
Brain Thief marks the first time I read a physical book and wished I was reading an electronic copy instead. This was partly because I spiked it with a dozen bookmarks for passages that exemplify Jablokov’s prose tightrope-walking between evoking classic noir and sleek sci-fi flavor (“He wore a black suit jacket, which Bernal pretended to himself he could identify as Armani,” “an old gray-water recovery unity with dangling filters made of nylon stockings stood next to a high-end rotating composter that smelled of rotting meat”, “the warbling bleert of an old dial-up modem”, “heavy batteries . . . everything in the modern world had become small and light, except the very heart of their power, which still had a Victorian mass”, “a warm day, the first day when the warmth seemed sincere rather than a smile pasted on a lurking winter” — Jablokov’s dialog crackles, too, although it’s harder to excerpt without running afoul of spoilers). But it was also because I kept needing to flip back to review previous scenes as new twists evolved my interpretation of events (Brain Thief rewards close and careful reading).
I’m not entirely clear on how eligibility for the major SF awards works, so maybe Brain Thief can still garner at least a (richly deserved, in my opinion, because there’s some serious thoughtfood under the thrillride) nomination for best novel. But I think it may not. Brain Thief is packaged as science fiction, but if you absolutely had to choose, it’s more a mystery novel with science fiction elements than a science fiction novel with mystery elements.* Perhaps that will keep it from being seriously considered as an award candidate in either genre. Which leads me to a thought about all the calories fans and critics (myself included) put into micro-classification: genre identification is helpful if it leads you to something you enjoy, but it’s harmful if it excludes something you might enjoy.
Brain Thief is also mostly set where our kittens hail from — between Boston and The Berkshires — and has some slyly mutated takes on some New England institutions which endeared it to me even more.
* Brain Thief reminded me of Rian Johnson’s terrific film Brick in how it incorporated the traditional elements of noir fiction into non-traditional noir setting, bringing a startling freshness to well-worn genre tropes.
needs more demons? good gravy, no.