[This entertaining, fast-paced sci-fi novel is a C4 Great Read.]

Author: Brian Evenson

2012, Tor

Filed under: Sci-Fi

I’ve been in a long, dark reading drought lately. I’ve been reading only mediocre books, it seems, for months now. I could barely remember what a great read felt like when I got hooked by Immobility.

It begins with a well-used premise, albeit one I’m a sucker for: a man wakes up with no idea where he is, what he’s doing there, or who he is. As the answers come in fits and starts, the questions of his identity and place in the world become dreadful, ominous, and traumatic.

His name, they tell him, is Josef Horkai. He’s been “stored,” as it turns out, which is dystopian lingo for cryogenic freezing. As he regains his wits, he instinctively, almost unconsciously, tries to murder one of the men who woke him up. He fails only because he falls off the bed; he’s paralyzed from the waist down.

The world is in the midst of a nuclear winter, after an apocalyptic event they call the Kollaps. The leader of the small, underground community in which Horkai wakes is an awkward man named Rasmus. Rasmus’s father found Horkai many years ago, fried nearly dead by intense radiation. Somehow, Horkai survived, but he contracted a disease that’s paralyzing him by inches. It’s taken his legs and threatens to move up his spine and kill him, except for special spinal injections that slow the disease’s spread.

That’s why he was stored, Rasmus says, to slow the spread of his disease while they look for a cure. They haven’t found it yet, but they have need of his services in the meantime.

“‘You were a fixer,'” Rasmus says, “‘a detective of sorts.'” A violent man, evidently, one who wouldn’t flinch if dirty work needed doing. The perfect man, it turns out, for a special mission.

By this point, I was hooked. Evenson’s prose and his character work aren’t mind-blowingly special, but he sketches out a gritty dystopia filled with creepy, unnerving people and a potent sense of dread hanging over everything. Evenson excels at creating characters who have something wrong with them, but something you can’t quite put your finger on (and Horkai can’t either).

Often these characters don’t seem to be entirely human—like the twin men, called “mules,” who carry Horkai on his mission. They talk endlessly of “purpose” and don’t seem to understand the world properly. There’s something mysteriously off about these two, Qatik and Qanik, but Horkai can’t quite figure it out. His conversations with them, however, get philosophical and often quite funny. Like this conversation after the trio runs into a stop sign:

“What does it say?” asked Qatik.

“Have you never seen a stop sign?” asked Horkai.

Qatik shook his head.

“Can’t you read?”

Within his hood, Qatik shook his head again. “Neither of us can read. But I can recognize letters.”

Beneath him, he felt Qanik nod. “It’s not important for everyone to read,” said Qanik. “Some read and some do other things. We all have our purpose.”

“Who told you that?” asked Horkai. “Someone who can read, I bet.”

In this way, Evenson explores the idiosyncrasies of this new world in an entertaining style that makes the pages fly by. And mystery infuses everything, like why Qatik and Qanik need biohazard suits to spend even a day in the outside world without dying, but Horkai has no trouble with drastic radiation or, say, getting shot.

The answers, when they eventually come, can be picked apart slightly, but they’re solid enough that they don’t sour the page-turning entertainment of the journey.

In the end, this isn’t a masterpiece, but it’s a very solid little piece of sci-fi, a simple idea well-executed, and the most fun I’ve had reading in several months.

Similar reads: Machine Man, by Max Barry; Pure, by Juliana Baggott; The Glister, by John Burnside; Genesis, by Bernard Beckett