Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Book Reviews: From political histories to bad comics, to bad comics of political histories. And the occasional rant about fiction and writing.

Mimsy Review: Blackout

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, September 10, 2001

Carl Ryson was mad. It was now one fifty-five: the board of directors had just called him to their meeting, already in progress. They wanted his “read on the situation.” “My read,” he growled to himself, “those idiots can’t even go to the bathroom without a four-hour meeting.” As far as they knew, the entire future of the television industry had just been flushed down the toilet, but, by all means, let’s have twelve meetings and no decisions.

A murder mystery and thriller, but the deceased is television, the suspects big business and Middle-Eastern revolutionaries, and the detective a master foley artist.

AuthorMatt Ward
Length328 pages
Book Rating6

Don’t know what a foley artist is? I didn’t either until I read this book. Of course I’d heard the term from my theater friends and in the credits of some movies, but I never knew what they did. Now I do. Michael Demerjian is one of the best foley artists in Hollywood, according to his friends, although he’s working for crappy television shows. He makes sound. When you hear the clink of wineglasses, the patter of rain, the slam of a door, or footsteps in the night, you’re hearing the work of a foley artist--as often as not, those noises were not made by putting a microphone up close to the clinking glasses or feet in question. After the shot is filmed, someone else--the foley artist--goes through and makes the noises. Michael Demerjian has squeaky chairs picked up from garage sales and other strange, noisy instruments that he uses to simulate the noises of car doors, garbage cans, and old western carriages, among all the other noises he has to create.

That’s changing now, of course, because of computers, and Michael gets to learn to use a foley software package during the course of the book. Learn it, or lose his job. Yet another case of television dumbing down the world.

That’s a part of what this book is about. We’re not willing to live without television, and what we’re not willing to live without are the dumb things: the poorly-plotted sitcoms, the contrived sports events. When, in the beginning of the book someone or some force kills television, there are only two national imperatives: find a replacement, and find the terrorists that did it. Michael Demerjian is caught between a country that’s beginning to fear (yet again) anyone of Arabic descent--one of the major suspects is an Arabic terrorist group called “The Tenth of Muharram”--on one side, his almost-ex-wife and major reporter trying to scoop a news story on the other side, and his little sister who works at one of the big businesses set to capitalize on the death of television, on another side.

Televisions have begun to explode. Someone is taking control of the flyback transformer and drilling a hole in the glass, causing them to blow up, sometimes literally in people’s faces. Technically it’s possible, but no one knows where the attack could be coming from; it usually hits entire neighborhoods and cities at once. Car bombs explode in shopping malls, and a group calling itself “The Tenth of Muharram” takes responsibility. The FCC issues an order requiring everyone to turn off their television sets until further notice. Intertech, which makes software for digital televisions, moves in to take advantage of the situation. Digital televisions don’t have flyback transformers. People are rioting in the streets to get anything they can watch television on that won’t blow up. Any politician who can bring television back, in any form at all, will be a shoo-in for the presidency.

And on the personal front, Michael’s wife has left him; “Jynx”, his little sister, has lost her boyfriend to suicide. Both Jynx and her boyfriend work at Intertech, which is run by their stepfather, Chet McLaughlin. Michael’s wife begins to smell something fishy about InterTech’s ability to take advantage of such a situation. And a co-worker fifteen years younger than Michael is coming on to him.

Meanwhile, back in Vietnam... (I’ll bet you think I’m kidding.)

The story is only really marred by the occasional odd analogies and some very bad sex: “Her mouth flew toward his like a heat seeking missile.” “With her other hand she reached down and rubbed his thigh, loving their hips grinding together, but dying to get at his crotch.”

Even without the sex, the analogies can be downright weird: “She was wearing... enough makeup for a ‘Star Trek’ reunion movie.” I’m fairly sure Star Trek isn’t mentioned at all anywhere else in the book. It’s just a weird, out of place reference. But that’s rare; usually his descriptions are right on target.

On opening the package from Barnes & Noble, I was immediately impressed by Marina Ward’s striking cover design for her husband’s “Blackout”. While self-published, this book would be right at home on any bookstore’s face-out shelf. It is a beautiful but simple design that really draws attention to what is inside.

There are some technical problems with the printing. Drop caps at each chapter don’t always make sense (as when the first line is only four characters long, for example), and whatever publishing software they used likes to break “wouldn’t” and related words just before the “n’t”, placing “n’t” on the next line (after a hyphen, of course). And after the wonderful cover, the interior is printed on all-white paper, making it look like a textbook. Towards the end, as the pace picked up and I could barely put the book down, after half an hour of reading the contrast between the black and white started the text swimming in front of my eyes until I rested them for a few minutes. I’ve never had this happen with the normal, cream-colored paper that all other novel publishers use.

The story is tightly plotted; only a few loose ends, such as Michael’s young lover Erin, remain at the end. Even minor jokes about journalistic integrity are set up perfectly chapters in advance. It takes stereotypes in hand and then breaks them. The Arabic terrorists; the Vietnamese terrorists, the crazed gun-owner living in a mountain retreat. The Viet Cong is perhaps the most interesting of the lesser characters, filling a role that would normally be filled by the friendly farmer or old hippie, that of the philosophical Luddite.

“Blackout” is at the same time cynical and hopeful. The tales about people doing whatever they can to get television back are, in fact, mostly cynical. So is his view of American corporate culture and the political class both in the United States and in Vietnam. But he’s also hopeful--hopeful that disparate viewpoints, when they get together, can provide solutions. One of the more telling conversations is the Vietnamese Communist revolutionary arguing with the American Free Market revolutionary about the effects of deregulation on the television industry. It’s just a short argument, a few paragraphs, but it holds the whole story in microcosm.

If you’re a mystery fan, especially mystery with a tint of romance (in the classical sense) and high tech, I think you’ll enjoy Matt Ward’s “Blackout”, and I recommend it.


Matt Ward

Recommendation: Purchase

If you enjoyed Blackout…

If you enjoy cyberpunk, you might also be interested in Dark City, Pi, The Matrix, The Futurological Congress, and The Heretic.