Book Review: Unnatural Selection, by Thomas Pryce
This book has some of the best, most entertaining and even-laugh-out loud similes I’ve read in a long, long time. Thomas Pryce is a guy who has such a deft voice and a broad reach when it comes to comparative statements, I found myself completely envious. There’s so many it’s hard to pick even just one to show, but I’ll go with this one, since I think I liked it best, and I don’t think it will ruin anything for you:
Even more telling, the other dog had stopped barking, and now circled sheepishly, its tail pinned tightly between its legs. You’d think it’d just seen the K-9 equivalent of a ghost, an apparition of Michael Vick holding jumper cables perhaps.
That’s just one out of many. Many! I read through this book and just kept getting these little hits of joy from that sort of stuff, and it was from that stuff that I found my main enjoyment of the novel.
In brief summary, Unnatural Selection is about a young biologist named Jesse who lives in an isolated underwater community. The community is riding out the post-global-warming crisis that sent the world into a tailspin. Jesse is getting cabin fever, however, and needs an excuse to go up to land and see what’s going on. A compelling reason comes along and from there results a variety of conflicts and discovery about how and why the world got so jacked up ensues.
All in all, this novel has a fantastic set of ideas at its core, and the execution of the first section of the book (the novel is divided into three parts), is flawless or nearly flawless. The patient creation of the environment, the establishment of place, of community, a little background, is all done very nicely, and of course, also done with Pryce’s delightful wit.
The second section, on land, is interesting and pretty well done too. There were a few places where I thought tension was undermined by the casual witty insertions of the narrator, however, with Jesse creeping around in the night with his comrades, fearing patrols of cannibals or worse, and yet making glib observations in internal monologue. Still, even with a couple of spots like that, I was in the story, and enjoying it. I would have liked to see more conflict with the bad guy and his monstrous creations and machinations like was set up at the beginning, but, that might be just personal taste.
I confess to struggling with the last section in parts, where I felt a bit of anti-climax, at least right up until the very end, which was fun. I can’t go into it very far, obviously, but, well, there were parts that for me seemed like too much telling rather than showing, exposition rather than action. Granted, these were done in the form of dialogue, but for me, quotes around exposition don’t change it enough. I know a lot of writers do that, but for me, it can feel a bit long to read, like an essay of “this is what happened” put into a character’s mouth. At one point I was reminded of those scenes in movies where one of the good characters gets captured or nearly knocked out in a fight, and then, rather than finish them off, the bad guy spends fifteen minutes explaining why he did everything he did, etc.
I’m not saying writers can’t do that, and the fact that it is a recognizable story telling technique proves that it might simply be a matter of personal taste, but for me, those parts detract from the scenes of action that I prefer.
That said, if you like complicated (in an interesting way) scenarios of double-dealing, conspiracy, and socio-political theorizing projected into the future, then even those parts will entertain you, because Pryce has put a lot of thought into how the world might come to such dire straits, and the world he created is seriously in a nasty state. The villain is the sort of guy we all hope doesn’t actually exist today… yet we all kind of think probably does.
At the end of the day, I think the really amazing start of this book is a little bit unhinged by an end that I would have like to see resolve with more action than explanation, but the similes and cleverness of the writing, especially in the first two thirds made it fun for a reader who enjoys watching the various elements of writing craft as a spectator sport, which I do.
I got the impression from the acknowledgements section at the front of the book that this is Pryce’s debut work. I hope he keeps going, because, wow, this guy’s voice alone is promise of great things to come.