The Supernaturalist, Chap. 4: Cringe-Worthy Cosmo

I love the beginning of this chapter. After a long night of blasting Parasites, the heroes return to their warehouse base to eat and rest for their next escapade. And Cosmo does something that we’ve all done before: 

‘I thought we did okay tonight,’ he said. ‘No one got hurt, and we blasted a hundred of those creatures.’

Cosmo, it’s your first night out. How do you even know what a good night is for them?

Stefan threw down his army-issue spoon. ‘And tomorrow there’ll be two hundred to take their place.’

Cosmo finished his food in silence, chewing slowly. “You know what I think?”

Stefan leaned back in his chair, arms crossed.  ‘No, Cosmo–what do you think?’

Cosmo, no. Cosmo, stop.

‘I think that if we could find out where they lived, then we could do some real damage.’

Stefan laughed sharply, rubbing his face with both hands. ‘For nearly three years I’ve been doing this, and I never thought of that. Wow, you must be some kind of genius, Cosmo. Find out where they live. Amazing.’

There you go, gentle readers. Your daily cringe. Something like this has happened to me more times than I can count. I think it’s most likely to happen when you’re the new guy, but even moreso when you’re the new guy who doesn’t want to be the new guy. You give a suggestion to prove that you’re competent, and it’s immediately rejected. It’s even worse when they make you feel like an idiot.

This chapter is also the first without a lot of action in it. No rooftop falls, no sick teenagers, no Parasite blasting. I’m not complaining, though. The book’s moved at a breakneck pace so far, and now the characters – and the reader – get a breather.

That doesn’t mean it’s not interesting. Along with seeing what Satellite City looks like during the daytime, we also learn more about Mona. It’s been all but outright stated that she was in a gang, and it’s confirmed when she and Cosmo go to her home turf of “Booshka”, named after the slang term for car theft.

I think it’s a little funny how audiences respond to scoundrels. I’ve always liked roguish characters. I’ve written plenty of stories (of varying quality) with a criminal as the star, and like to play the less than law abiding characters in roleplaying games. We cheered when the crew of Serenity stole medical supplies from a hospital in Firefly, but look at it from a different perspective: a bunch of freelancers, with a history of breaking the law, robbed a hospital. Whatever the context, however quickly the hospital could be resupplied, if someone robbed a hospital in real life, we would not be so forgiving.

That’s just one of the things I love about fiction. People we would hate in real life become the ones we cheer for in books and movies.

I bring this up because real life gangs are violent and frightening, and Mona’s old gang, The Sweethearts, seems more along the lines of West Side Story than Sons of Anarchy. They’re not about smuggling drugs or guns, they’re about illegal drag racing.

Now that I’m (in theory) a grown-up with a better understanding of the world, I’d say that’s not so bad. Much better than drug smuggling, at any rate. Reading this now, it seems pretty light, but this book was also written for teenagers. You can argue all day about what is and isn’t appropriate for kids to be exposed to, but I’m glad that it didn’t get much darker than this when it came to the gangs. They play a relatively small role in the overall novel, and a more realistic version may very well have scared the shit out of me.

Even so, I enjoyed Mona’s description of the other gangs in the area.

‘Those are the Irish I’s. They specialize in truckjacking from the docks across the bridge. [. . .] Those tall guys are the Zools. Body guards mostly, they all learn some kind of African martial arts. One of those guys throws something sharp at you, and it’s all over.  [. . .] Those men with the piercings are the Bulldogs. They can strip a bike down in seconds. You turn away to tie your bootlace, and when you come back, your bike is just a skeleton.’

I like the variety, but these descriptions, and other small details in the narrative, really flesh out Satellite City.

When she was a Sweetheart, Mona was the gang’s mechanic. The girl mechanic trope isn’t exactly an original concept at this point, but it’s one I’ve always liked. I like being handy when I can, and it’s good to know what to do when your toilet breaks and you can’t call your dad for help. That said, I rarely figure out things like that without guidance, and at this point I’m much more likely to pay someone to fix things for me than do it myself. Maybe the reason I like this archetype so much is because it’s what I’m not. Hell, maybe that’s the reason I like criminal characters, too.

I keep looking for more of Cosmo’s character to stand out, and it’s finally starting to. At least, his timidity is showing. As he and Mona walk through Booshka to get parts for the Supernaturalists’ vehicle, he shrinks, stares at the ground, trying to make himself small and invisible. Mona, on the other hand, tells him that he needs to walk tall, or the gangs will eat him alive.

C’mon, Cosmo, I know you can do better than that.

The Supernaturalist Chap. 2: Welcome to the World of Tomorrow!

There must be something wrong with me, because I was a little disappointed that Cosmo got out of the orphanage so quickly. I’ve always liked “institution” settings, be it a school for wizards, or a training camp to turn you into a secret agent. On the other hand, if he didn’t get out at the end of the first chapter, I’m sure I’d be impatiently waiting for him to get out. You can only read about chemical tests for so long before it stops being interesting.

It’s the same with Cosmo’s recovery. He took some major damage when he fell off the rooftop and onto the generator, which Mona – the token girl – explains to Cosmo when he wakes up. He had to get his knee replaced, and his skull patched up with a “robotix plate” that Ditto happened to have around. Why the team medic had robotix plates that are used to armor assault tanks lying around is a question that never gets answered. Plus there were various stitches, bruises, and staples to deal with. Cosmo’s on painkillers and sleeping through the first couple pages of this chapter, but he still heals up from all that remarkably quickly. A lot of it is explained away in the technology used for healing, like a “plexi-cast” that reduces swelling and somehow (magic?) repaired Cosmo’s leg in something like twenty-four hours. He has trouble walking for a bit, but for the most part, the worst pain he feels is in his head. The rapid recovery shakes my suspension of disbelief a bit, because the only real explanation given is, “it’s the future!” Of course, if the rest of the book was just Cosmo lying in bed, it would be pretty boring. I just think that it should have taken him longer to heal up.

Even so, the action doesn’t let up when the three strangers – Stefan, Ditto, and an incredibly ill Mona – burst into the room. That’s one thing I always liked about this book. There’s no part in it that’s boring. Okay, it’s not all explosions and psychotic marshals, but even when it slows down, it’s interesting. When Cosmo wakes up for the first time, for example, Mona gives him a rundown of his injuries and exactly what Ditto had to do to patch him up. That might sound dull, but even the explanation of the technology used to patch him up is different, and it helps worldbuild.

Speaking of, there’s a lot of worldbuilding done in just the scene when Cosmo’s rescuers come in. I like that it’s not as direct in the first chapter, and has been done a bit more through dialogue. It’s not without its flaws, though:

‘Close the curtains!’ he shouted.

Cosmo pointed at the react-to-light control panel beside a window. ‘But the glass. Why don’t I just adjust…?’

‘Because the police birds see right through react-to-light. That’s why it comes with the building. Get it?’

It seems to me shutting the curtains would be a lot quicker.

For the most part, I think it’s a pretty good exchange, and gives you some good information about the world. I don’t think the dialogue sounds all that natural, though, especially considering the characters are in an emergency situation. I think it would make more sense for Cosmo to just do as he’s told here, but it is some good exposition.

It’s revealed that Mona is ill because she got hit with a technically non-lethal dart that law enforcement can use, though it’s only non-lethal as long as whoever gets hit by it sticks around long enough for the antidote. Cosmo comes to the rescue, as he’s able to recognize Mona’s symptoms, as those darts had been tested on the orphans at Clarissa Frayne.

I take it back. I’m glad Cosmo didn’t stick around the orphanage any longer than he did.

He remembers that when the “creeper slugs”, as they were called, were tested on the orphans, a moldy sandwich made one of them feel better. Ditto suddenly understands what’s going on, and explains it in technobabble.

“Of course. This is is a flora virus. Cellulose would shut it down.”

That’s another line I didn’t think twice about when I read this as a kid.  Now, I have to wonder how that even makes sense. Whatever, I’ll roll with it. With Cosmo’s knowledge and some chewed up flowers, the group saves Mona and sends her to her bunk to recover. Ditto and Stefan then take some time to properly introduce themselves, and their mission, to Cosmo.

The group: Stefan, Mona, Ditto, and now Cosmo, call themselves the Supernaturalists. They have the ability to see strange blue creatures that no one else can, which they call Parasites. The Parasites are invisible to most people. After a lifetime of living under the smog in Satellite City and a near-death experience, some people, usually kids, are able to see Parasites.

‘The sight usually comes after a near-death experience, and I think what happened to you qualifies as a near-death experience.’

‘About as near as you can get,’ added Ditto, rapping the plate in Cosmo’s head.” 

Not cool, Ditto. That probably hurt.

The Parasites are aptly named, as they suck life force. They used to only go to people who were dying, but in the past year their population has exploded, and they’ll swoop down on almost anyone with an injury. The Supernaturalists have two weapons against them. First, Parasites don’t like water, and will avoid it as much as possible. Since they also feed on energy, the Supernaturalists shoot electricity at them with “lightning rods”. The charges are small enough that they wouldn’t injure a person, but it destroys parasites. From day to day, the Supernaturalists monitor disasters and rush to them to fight Parasites. This causes plenty of problems for the motley crew, because you can’t just expect to run into a dangerous situation, fire at apparently nothing, and not expect any consequences.

‘We observe Satellite sites, waiting for disasters.’ 

‘What, you hack the state police site?’ 

Ditto chuckled. ‘The state police site? No, thank you. We’re in too much of a hurry to wait around for the police. We hack the law firms.’

And that’s how you know it’s cyberpunk.

Now that we know who the enemies are, let’s look at the heroes of this story.

We’ll start with Ditto. He looks like a child, but is actually twenty-eight years old. Ditto’s a Bartolli Baby, part of a genetics experiment as an infant conducted to make super humans. Most of the babies had arrested physical development, but some, like Ditto, gained certain side-effects. Ditto is highly intelligent, and was a doctor before joining the Supernaturalists. His ability to see Parasites is another Bartolli side-effects. He also doesn’t shoot Parasites, but goes in as a medic to help people that have been injured during disasters.

I don’t know what it is–maybe too much time spent reading shojo manga–but I’ve always had a thing for angsty young men. Until I tried dating one, that is. Protip: leave your crushes on brooding guys and bad boys where they belong–in fiction.

Still, this description of Stefan sent my teenage hormones into overdrive:

He was a charismatic figure, about eighteen, with haunted features. His jet-black hair stood in unruly spikes, and a pink scar stretched from the corner of his mouth, giving the impression of an impish grin, an impression that did not match the pain in his eyes. Eyes that were probably blue, but to Cosmo seemed blacker than outer space. It was obvious that Stefan was the leader of this little group. It was in his nature. The way he slouched in his char, the way Ditto automatically turned to him…

It’s not exactly a stretch of the imagination to figure out what happened to Stefan: his mother died, and the Parasites had something to do with it. This is confirmed by the end of the chapter, when he goes to the crematorium to visit his mother’s ashes. We don’t have the full story yet, but it’s pretty obvious what happened. I don’t think Stefan really sees fighting Parasites as revenge on them for taking his mother, but rather, a way for him to protect others. It’s made clear right away that Stefan is the real leader in this group, even though he’s about ten years younger than Ditto.

Mona is, as TV Tropes would put it, the Wrench Wench. It’s a trope that I’ve seen more and more lately, but one I’ve always liked. She’s the group’s mechanic, and was involved in street gangs at some point before joining the Supernaturalists. And, without getting all Social Justice Warrior here, Mona is the only person of color in the group, and (if I recall correctly) of the main characters. This is something that I didn’t notice or even think about when I first read the book. I could talk about privilege or white washing or a number of topics, but there are plenty of other blogs dedicated to just that. I want to focus on the writing.

One of the reasons this caught my attention was that Mona was the only character whose race was described. I’m currently working on a story where the majority of the setting’s population are multi-racial, and I’m trying to find the best way to express this. I’m not great at describing characters’ physical appearances, and I’ve found describing skin tone challenging. I’ve read enough descriptions of characters with “caramel” or “cinnamon” skin, but I’ve also read enough complaints that terms like that exocticise POC. I’ve also noticed that if you don’t specify a race or skin tone, readers are likely to picture that character as White. Colfer just said that Mona is Latina, and left it there. I don’t think that’s a bad way of doing it.

But what do I know? I’m just a middle-class White girl who needs to check her privilege.

The Supernaturalist Chap. 1: Cosmonaut Hill

It’s time to take a break from manga for the time being, and move on to books that have more words than pictures.

This time, our trip down memory lane will take us into the future, with The Supernaturalist by Eoin Colfer. Colfer’s probably most known for the Artemis Fowl series, though he did write several stand-alone novels (and adult novels now!) I never got into the Artemis Fowl books, but have enjoyed Colfer’s other works. I first read The Supernaturalist when I was fifteen, and remember enjoying it a lot. It’s not typical of what you would normally think of Colfer’s books, in that it’s science-fiction. No faeries, no demons and angels, but a lot of cool technology. That’s not to say that it’s without its otherworldly creatures–this is Eoin Colfer we’re talking about, after all.

And before I go any further, I want to point out that “Eoin” is pronounced “Owen”. This is because Gaelic makes no sense.

The introduction to the book, the main character, and the world itself are very direct. It starts with a baby, abandoned in Satellite City, where the book takes place. The baby (named Cosmo Hill, as he was found on Cosmonaut Hill) is sent to Clarissa Frayne Institute for Parentally Challenged Boys, the kind of orphanage that Miss Hannigan would be proud to run. Clarissa Frayne makes all its money through product testing. That is, the boys they take in become test subjects for various companies. Just in the introduction, we’re told that Cosmo’s “teeth were white than white, and his hair was lustrous and flake-free; but his insides felt like they were being scored with a radioactive wire brush.” It’s quickly established that the life expectancy for an orphan at Clarissa Frayne is fifteen years old. Fourteen-year-old Cosmo knows that he’s running out of time, and is determined to escape.

This is all told to use within the first seven paragraphs of the book.

Normally, I wouldn’t like an introduction like this. There’s no dialogue, no action, just facts about the world and the main character. However, I have been reading Neuromancer by William Gibson lately, and Gibson doesn’t explain anything. It’s fine to leave your characters in the dark, and it’s fine to withhold information from the audience. However, you shouldn’t withhold so much information that the reader doesn’t have a clue what’s going on. Like whether your characters are on a space station or on Earth. Really, Gibson, it’s not that hard. Just say they’re on a fucking space station already, so I don’t have to keep guessing.

But I digress.

After the introduction to the main character and the setting, we finally get to see what Cosmo’s life is like at the orphanage. Even though The Supernaturalist doesn’t sport the matrix, hackers, or AI, I would still say that it’s a cyberpunk novel. It has many staples of the genre: high-tech, low life; the heroes are criminals and outcasts; powerful corporations; Earth a decade or so into the future, and that future is terrible. This book was my introduction to cyberpunk, which I enjoy a lot.

Cosmo’s day-in, day-out routine isn’t easy, especially since he’s a human guinea pig. The orphans are rounded up, put through whatever product testing needs to be done for the day, then get sent back to their “dorm” to rest for the night. I bring up the dorm specifically because it was something that really confused me when I first read this book.

“The rooms were actually sections of cardboard utility pipe that had been sawed into six-foot lengths. The pipes were suspended from a network of wires almost fifty feet off the ground. Once the pipes were occupied by orphans, the entire contraption swayed like an ocean liner.”

This setup was something I found nearly impossible to picture as a teenager. I think it was “pipes” that threw me off. I can visualize it better now, but don’t really see how something – pipes and wires holding who knows how many kids – could be stable. Even though it’s made clear from the start that Clarissa Frayne doesn’t really care about the well-being of its “no-sponsors”, I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t want the whole thing to collapse.

I also want to know what they do with babies that come into the Institute. I imagine there’s some kind of nursery, but when do they decide that the kids are old enough to be product testers? Or are they given experimental formula right from the get-go? Considering the way these kids are treated, I’m guessing it’s the latter.

We actually don’t see too much of Clarissa Frayne in this first chapter, because most of the real action starts when the orphans are being transported back to the institute. I also like how Colfer fits in little details about the world without being too overt about it. For example, when Cosmo takes a survey, it’s a “sixty-kilobyte questionnaire” and he ticks off answers with a “digi-pen”. It’s a small detail, but it tells you that this setting is influenced heavily by electronics. This only gets reinforced when we learn about the Satellite. The Satellite runs almost everything in the city (Appropriately, called Satellite City, nicknamed “The Big Pig”), including the vehicles. When the bus Cosmo’s in loses its link to the Satellite,  the driver doesn’t even know how to control it manually using the steering wheel. While it begs the question, “why have a driver in the first place?” this event kicks off Cosmo’s escape.

The bus gets slammed onto its side by other vehicles that are still linked to the Satellite, making them essentially on autopilot. After a collision leaves on its side, most of the adults – the marshals – are badly injured and out for the count. Mostly. There are only two marshals that are given names and Redwood is one of them. Not only is he wholly unpleasant, he’s sadistic and has no problem choking one of his charges, who happens to be cuffed to Cosmo. Redwood actually lets Cosmo and Ziplock get off the bus and make a break for the city. Unbeknownst to them, they’re still being tracked, and all Redwood has to do is follow their tracker patterns to get to the kids, which gives us this exchange:

“Redwood keyed the talk button on his communicator. ‘Fred. Send the Hill C and Murphy F tracker patterns to my handset.’

Fred cleared his throat into the mike. ‘Uh…the tracker patterns?’

Redwood ground his teeth. ‘Dammit, Fred, is Bruce there? Put Bruce on.'”

It goes on for a couple more paragraphs, with Redwood having to explain step-by-step how to email those tracker patterns. This could have been done to explain to the reader how it works, or as a way to give Cosmo and his cuffed partner more time. It didn’t really seem important to me when I first read the book, but now I love it.

Wherever you work, you will always have the one idiot coworker who doesn’t know what they’re doing. If you’re lucky, they’ll also make your job difficult due to their incompetence. And if you’re really lucky, like me, you will be the one person in the entire office that everyone comes to when they have IT problems. Then they act like you’re a wizard when you fix it, but all you’ve done is Google the solution.

Or maybe that’s just me. Anyway, I appreciate that even in the future, there will still be idiots who don’t know how to do their jobs.

Redwood catches up to the boys on a rooftop, and he grabs Ziplock’s jumpsuit at the edge of the roof to try to take him back. The jumpsuit rips, however, sending Ziplock and Cosmo over the edge, and landing on a generator. Both receive a huge electrical shock and get blown off the roof. Ziplock dies, Cosmo is badly hurt. He sees strange blue creatures land on him, and they seem to be sucking away his life force. He is rescued by three strangers who are reluctant to take Cosmo with them, until he starts talking about the blue creatures.

The story itself has a few good twists that really keep the plot moving, and there’s a lot of foreshadowing when Cosmo meets the group. On one hand, it makes me feel smart that I can recognize the plot points before they become plot points, but on the other, it makes me cringe a little bit. Not because it’s too clunky or poorly written, but because a lot of trouble could have been avoided by one character speaking up sooner.

Reading this now, the exposition does bother me a little bit. In a sci-fi or fantasy setting, I much prefer information being gradually revealed, usually through characters telling the new guy what’s going on. It’s needed in this chapter, though, with Cosmo and Ziplock already being familiar with the “rules” of the universe they live in. I much prefer it to having no information, at any rate. There were also a couple things I noticed that I didn’t when I first read this book. The first chapter seems much darker to me, for a start. A kid gets killed, Redwood only gives them the chance to escape so he has an excuse to punish them; Ziplock, specifically, because he’s the one who’s always mouthing off at Redwood. It’s kind of disturbing how the adults are so casual about using the kids as test subjects.

There’s also Ziplock’s death. Reading this as an adult and well past the age of the protagonists, it seems much sadder to me that he died so young. When you’re fifteen, anything over eighteen years old seems old. Turning twenty seems like it’s a million years away. So, fourteen years seems like a decent amount of time. As an adult and twentysomething, I can see that it is much to short of a time to live.