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Book Review: Three A.M.

Three A. M.

by Steven John

Tor Books, 2012

Steven John’s novel Three A.M. is published by the science fiction house Tor, and the reader doesn’t have to delve very far to hit on the sci-fi premise: plagues have ravaged a world very much like our own, leaving millions dead, and a mysterious, gripping fog has descended on the city of our setting, blotting out the sun and prompting the government to quarantine the place – nobody in or out. Glowing orbs are set along the streets at intervals to light the way, and storefront businesses use big industrial fans to keep their entrances free of the mist. Nobody’s seen the sun in fifteen years.

It’s all adroitly evoked, especially considering this is John’s fiction debut. But before readers can get to the trappings of one genre, they’re confronted – in the book’s groaningly overdone first paragraph – with the trappings of another:

She was blond, of course. Eyes as gray as midnight fog and lips stained red. Her dress matched her lips and hugged her hips and chest, and my eyes kept drifting to where the crimson silk stopped and her thighs began. Christ, what a beauty. And oh how she knew it. And she knew I knew she knew, and it didn’t matter a bit.

Thus, not only the world of the gumshoe detective novel, but of the really, really bad gumshoe detective novel – and given the omnipresent gloom, necessarily a noir gumshoe novel. What we have in Three A.M. is a genre-blending novel (a “mash-up” as the kids call it) of a type that’s always been puzzling. One of the limits of genre fiction is also one of its pleasures: the conventions are so rigid that all cleverness and invention must happen within them, like a good sonnet. Genre-blending novels (sci-fi detectives, fantasy westerns, zombie regencies, the whole sub-genre of steampunk, etc) walk a tricky path, trying to satisfy the very genre restrictions they’re in the act of violating – which is why so few of them work: something’s bound to get slighted.

In the case of Three A.M., as in most cases, that something is the science fiction. The mysterious fog and its effects on the trapped city are never more than sketched by our author, who’s intent more on using them as a plot gimmick than on sitting down and thinking about what would happen to a big city if you took away sunlight and emigration. This is a bit of a shame; John shows talent as a mystery writer, and the effects he achieves with his gimmick – rampant depression and nihilism, basically – he could easily have achieved without it (by Googling ‘Detroit,’ for instance), and thereby avoided the conceptual pitfalls that will make this a tough book for sci-fi fans to like.

Our hero, forty-something Thomas Vale, is a PI whose memories of the sun (and of his dead family) have driven him to bitter alcoholism. He ekes out a living taking small cases and loan-sharking, and John cuts him from the classic PI cloth without worrying too much about the detail-work (he’s the closest thing the whole book has to a finished character, and he’s not all that close). Vale drinks all day and gets drunk all night; he hates the mist and all it represents; he smokes constantly throughout the book, to such a laughable degree that when the plot lurches him into action, even the most tolerant reader will expect him to promptly double over and hork up splatters of blood and lung.

When the above-mentioned beauty walks into his bar with a bigger case and the offer of a large sum of money, we can pretty much guess the rest. Since being able to pretty much guess the rest is one of the promises genre writers make to their readers, this is above-board on John’s part, and he pleases by giving his surly protagonist the odd philosophical moment:

How long had the Roman Empire stood? Six, seven hundred years? And Egypt for thousands before it. And for tens of thousands of years before that, what had men done? So many billions had died and been forgotten, but they had at least lived to give ups a chance, to pass on one more generation of fertility … one more round of potential. Were any of them great? If you die leaving no trace of your history other than rotting bones, can you be considered significant? To be sure, human history did not begin with the record of human history, but for all the semantic arguments in the world, it might as well have.

Vale clearly hasn’t read the novel of which he’s the star, since he summarizes such history lessons by thinking things like “Dying anonymously didn’t much bother me. Living a pointless life did” even though he’s been rather aggressively living a pointless life ever since the weather changed. That starts to turn around as he delves deeper into his new case, which brings him to the heart not only of a murder but of the enveloping mist itself. This investigation changes the pace of the book quite a bit – luckily, since the weaknesses of the original set-up are obvious even to our gumshoe protagonist:

I held out my lighter, meaning for her to take it, but she leaned in and waited, a long black cigarette between her dark lips. I lit it for her and she touched my hand and it was all such a fucking cliche.