Saturday, 13 July 2019

Review: The Return of the Incredible Exploding Man

The Return of the Incredible Exploding Man The Return of the Incredible Exploding Man by Dave Hutchinson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Here's what I'd tell this author if I was his editor. Obviously, I'm not.

Your prose is well above average. That's what kept me reading through the very slow first quarter; I don't know that it would do as much for most readers. Your structure, on the other hand, needs a lot of work.

The first quarter consists entirely of a sad loser (one of my least favourite kinds of character, speaking for myself) resisting a decision that it's clear he will end up making. What's not clear is why he's resisting it. Is he fiercely independent and doesn't like being railroaded? If so, you need to show that more obviously, and also make it a trait that carries through into the rest of the book. Likewise if he's just self-sabotaging. I couldn't figure out which one it was, or if it was something else, and it never ended up mattering anyway.

The middle half is stronger, but at the three-quarter mark it takes a sharp left turn, and practically all the plot lines and characters that have been gradually developing through the middle are thrown away, never to be resolved. Your title promises, and the blurb hints, that this is a supers book. It isn't for the first three-quarters, and the last quarter is only a supers book if you're extremely generous with the definition. Then the ending is a complete damp fizzle.

Here's what I suggest you do. Cut two-thirds of the first 75%, including most of the first 25%. Get rid of all the plotlines that go nowhere and the characters that disappear at the three-quarter mark for no particular reason except that the book has suddenly changed what it's about. If possible, bring in at least two of the three new characters you introduce in the last quarter (the Polish scientist and the two government agents); don't introduce significant new characters after the first act if you can help it.

Develop the relationships with Wendy, the scientist from the early part, and if possible Rob Chen. They're underutilised. The relationship with Wendy doesn't have to be a romance (you briefly hint at the possibility, but never follow through), but it should be more than it is. Chen is a throwaway at the moment. You developed the relationship with Ralph, the old man next door, well; I want to see you do the same with other characters that last until the end of the book.

And definitely develop the relationship with the villain. Perhaps you could toss in the theory that the reason Alex and he were the only ones who were able to leave after the accident was that they were having a confrontation at the time; either the emotional heightening or the physical proximity could provide an explanation for what is, at the moment, unexplained. It's fine if that's just a theory that never gets confirmed, but humans come up with theories to explain things. At the moment, no explanation is even attempted. Have the scientists at least figure something out, and show us a bit of their process, and their personal process around the scientific process. That's your chance to give the female characters, particularly Wendy, more to do; at the moment, they're tokens. "Look, my book has women scientists! Two of them!" Yes, well, good for you, but they don't play that much role in the plot, especially not as scientists, and not as fully realised people either.

Instead of just having the agents tell Alex about the damage the villain's doing, have him go and see and feel the devastation it's causing for himself. Have him try to help the victims with his new powers, which are seriously underutilized; there's not even a suggestion that he should be considering the good he can do on a large scale. He barely does much on a small scale.

The whole new middle should be about him trying to come to terms with his new powers, trying to use them in a way that matters, hitting limitations, discovering that helping people isn't simple, opening out beyond his self-absorption, differentiating himself from the villain, and becoming more determined to stop the villain. Give me a reason to be emotionally invested. Lead up to the second confrontation with the villain, and make it the turning point of Act 3, not just an inconclusive thing that happened without much foreshadowing or emotional weight. Then show us how things resolve for the characters we've now come to care about. Not everything needs to wrap up in a neat bow, but something needs to resolve. At the moment, the ending is nothing. It has no thematic resonance (in part because the book is so disjointed), it has no sense of a plot coming to a conclusion, it's just a place where you stop writing. Everything has changed for Alex, but nothing has changed for him. Give him an internal journey to match his external one.

In the current version, the book Alex is writing never comes together and ends up just being lost, uncompleted. I assume that's not intended as a metaphor for this book, but it certainly could be.

If you wrote the book I describe above, or anything close to it, it could be a five-star book for me. You're a clever writer. You could make it not cliched, you could have things that are left unsettled, you could avoid turning it into a Hollywood cookie-cutter plot. Yes, it's more conventional than what you've done, but classics are classics because they work. As it stands, your version only makes it to three stars because of the quality of the prose; structurally and in terms of pacing, it doesn't work for me at all, and I think there are serious missteps. It's certainly not the "thrilling science fiction masterwork" that the blurb promises.

(I received a review copy via Netgalley.)

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