The Austin Chronicle

Lit-urday: Quantum Ops and Sentient Ink

By Wayne Alan Brenner, June 28, 2014, 10:30am, Under the Covers

It's been a long week, and now you deserve to have one day when you can curl up with a good book – let's call it Lit-urday. Maybe the thing to make you feel better about your week is a gloomy futurescape in which citizens are stalked by shadow people and quantum butchers.

Black Hole Butterfly

by Salem

Metapulp, 432pp, $16

That stuff they make countertops out of, right?

Not Formica, a mere veneer that's affixed like an industrial-strength decal over whatever mundane object is being cheaply covered, but Corian. Because Corian is thick, for one thing, and it can be so thick that it's sometimes used as a sculptural material in its own right. But especially because, no matter how thick Corian is, it's surface all the way through. Nick it, scrape it, carve out a chunk: The interior is indistinguishable from the exterior. Its style, you might say, is its substance.

I have a copy of a new novel, Black Hole Butterfly by Salem, sitting on a countertop made of Corian … and the similarities are undeniable.

Been a whole lot of cyberpunk going on since William Gibson spiked the genre with his Neuromancer back in 1984: Been a good amount of brilliant shit inspired by what that talented writer and horophile unleashed with the grid and the ninjas and the street finds its own uses for technology; been, too, a whole lot more craptastic prose badly aping Gibsonia's less subtle tropes and trappings.

Salem's Black Hole Butterfly is simultaneously of and beyond both of those extremes and goes nowhere near anything resembling a middle.

From the description on the book's back cover: "Detective Rook Black is having a tough time solving crime in a New York City where reality is traded on the black market by the mysterious quantum butcher, Jack the Butterfly. While following an assassin's trails through Chinatown, space and time begin to overwrite."

So, yes, this is also a noir detective sort of thing, and as intricate and convoluted as that time you tried to watch Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep while you were stoned. There are bizarre murders and tech-enhanced espionage and extreme body modifications and old-school double-crosses and freaky sexual escapades in this Black Hole Butterfly, and, mostly, there is texture and texture and texture – and all of it graphically evoked and layered so deep it's like, reading it, you've learned to breathe water.

To return to the instigating metaphor: Black Hole Butterfly is surface all the way through. That's meant not as insult or compliment (although there is much to compliment in Salem's darkly glittering opus), simply as a statement of fact.

To be sure: You know how some works of science fiction are easily accessible to readers accustomed to more mundane works of literature? This ain't one of those works. This is a story where your mind is constantly flooded with a churning, neo-pulp datastream and eventually grows a sense of what's going on and to whom and in what sort of radically reupholstered criminal underworld of the future.

Listen: "The stinking shadow man hovered over him, lacing his body with nanoelectrodes and injecting his own dark essence into him. Dr. Chess, in the aftermath, vomited vascular pulp all over his white shirt. When they dropped the dazed man back off at his lab, he could barely crawl."

Listen: "His addiction to Millioni's inked DNA was killing him, but Jack the Butterfly thought of the quantum shadow that clothed him in darkness as a beatific metamorphosis. As their personalities became increasingly nonlocal and enfolded into the cosmic darkness of the collective unconscious, most addicts did."

Listen: "Through the pale orange lenses of his eyeglasses, which obscured the slit pupils in his golden eyes, Jules glanced at his reflection slanting off a mirrored storefront. He made haste toward the subway stairwell, its entry still marked by stencil-like, green-lit Art Deco lettering. His eyes had been grafted and embedded within them were nanocameras that sent digital images to the Naranja Empire regarding his infiltration into the Petroleum Club."

Imagine: A collaboration between Thomas Pynchon and Lionel Fanthorpe, with Harry Stephen Keeler kibitzing on the sidelines after binge-watching the anime oeuvre of Masamune Shirow.

Recommended? Yes: If you like this sort of thing, and you like it dense and unrelenting, Black Hole Butterfly is gonna stick a wire deep into your literary pleasure center and turn the juice to eleven.

– Wayne Alan Brenner

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