Review: Subcutanean   Leave a comment

Subcutanean is a book where each printed copy is unique; where, rather than writing straight lines of prose, the author Aaron Reed designed text that would spawn multiple variations, what he calls “quantum possibilities”.

Subcutanean is a novel where each copy is custom-printed to be unique; where the author, Aaron Reed, wrote prose designed to spawn a multitude of variants in what he calls “quantum possibilities”.

The novel Subcutanean is by the author Aaron Reed (Blue Lacuna, The Ice-Bound Concordance) but rather than writing straightforward prose, he has written a “generator” that chooses variations of text; each printed copy of the novel is unique.

A sample of variant text from the author’s website; I’ll refer to this later.

Your first question might be “wait, does that work?” which I’ll answer momentarily; however, in general, all I could see was the copy I got (Seed #01893) so I’d first like to review it like an ordinary novel. Do note, however, that any quotes I pull will likely differ from whatever copy you might get (should you choose to buy the novel).

Orion and Niko are friends in college living in an old house. They discover a secret set of stairs leading to a mysterious basement they just refer to as Downstairs: a room “thirty feet across by sixty or seventy long” with “beige carpet and brown wall-paneling” and “five open doorways”.

The open doorways lead to side halls, and those side halls lead to further side halls, and crawlways, and pits, and more angular things.

Without delving too much into spoilers, Orion meets a copy of himself, and things start to slowly go more and more awry such that in order for Orion and Niko escape, they need to go deeper.

While the plot begins as a slow burn, the horror and suspense start to multiply to be about as intense as anything you could read.

There were shots of the pit with nothing else there: no grapples, no ropes, no us. There were shots where the carpet was crawling with beetles. There were shots where the walls were made of meat.

Orion and Niko are extremely well-drawn, and it’s clear the author cares about them both. Orion has a long-standing crush on Niko, and the thematic tension between the two matches the plot without being overbearing.

Relatedly, as a (self-identified) work of queer fiction, this is terrific, and Orion’s feelings of tension and awkwardness and self-discovery are far more believable than many similar attempts I’ve read. Some of the best passages relate to the interplay with Orion’s mental state and past history (“I never once think that he might be like me because I’ve never met anyone like me.”)

The other characters do not fare nearly as well. This is perhaps intentional on the author’s part; the plot is 95% Orion and Niko, and the 5% which involves the rest of the cast is terribly awkward and there’s even some dialogue challenging Orion to remember the names of the housemates. Still, I’ve read novels where the main character was apathetic about others but they were always there, as characters; that doesn’t happen here.

The prose is generally strong and confident. If I didn’t know about the “quantum text” aspect beforehand I likely would never have known about it.

However —

It’s not quite as good as it could be. In some cases I was ready to reach for an editor’s pen (the opening, in particular, could be a lot tighter). I was often left wondering if a potential edit was inherently structural or due to the wild multitude of textual possibilities.

The act of writing well involves many interlocking details, and some combinations display greater artistry than others in a way that’s hard for a procedural text generator to capture.

Compare these two from the author’s site (from the image linked earlier):

“Huh.” I blinked. Green. His eyes were green. “Not really my thing.”

“Huh.” I stirred the pot. “Not really my thing.”

I had the first in my own copy, and actually noted it down at the time as a strong bit of prose. It very subtly gets across Orion’s crush (it was the first moment I was sure this was going to be queer fiction), and has a lovely symmetry besides with the word “green”. It contrasts nicely with the line after (“Not really my thing”) where there are two opposing forces in the narrator’s mind.

By contrast, the second line is non-descript and unmemorable. Not only is the changed portion weaker, but it causes the dialogue line after to be weaker. (Perhaps paired with some other text it might be better, but I don’t know what the possibilities of the generator are.)

I do want to emphasize the experience is still extremely smooth, and there’s a strong meta-aspect that gives the act of reading the novel itself a feeling of suspense. Even on the plot alone this is an excellent yarn, and if the unique-novel aspect interests you at all, I give this a strong recommend.

Subcutanean has a crowdfunding goal in progress on Indigogo. I received a reader copy for free. Aaron Reed runs the Spring Thing competition which I have submitted prizes to before but I otherwise don’t know him personally and I haven’t worked with him professionally.

Posted October 29, 2019 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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