Simon and Schuster, 2012
I remember joking once with a friend that the next logical step in the world of motion controls and haptic feedback was porn. In a world of Real Dolls and Japanese robots it becomes increasingly obvious, and likely disturbing to many people, the direction in which the sex toy industry will go. Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, along with films like Tron or The Matrix, touch upon the nature of artificial reality and its impact in society in a very straightforward manner. Rare is the mainstream novel that examines the more primal corners of these emergent technologies. Enter Michael Olsen’s debut novel Strange Flesh.
Strange Flesh follows a white hat hacker (maybe gray hat is more accurate) named James Pryce as he tasked with investigating the disappearance of an old flame’s black sheep younger brother Billy Randall. His investigation sees him undercover at an arts/media conglomerate called GAME where he discovers the twisted game left be behind by Billy; one modeled after the works of the Marquis de Sade. James’ investigation leads him on often meandering path down strange avenues at the intersection between the real and the virtual.
In terms of language and tone something about Strange Flesh called to mind the languid prose of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Maybe it was the ivy league flashbacks James so often indulges in but the posh ivy league inner circle of James’ youth, one helmed by the Randall Twins Blythe and Blake, calls to mind the circle in Tartt’s novel. Strange Flesh, particularly as it moves towards the latter two thirds, slowly begins to move towards the darker underbelly of internet culture and technological development. As Billy’s game is revealed and the virtual game based off of de Sade’s work impinges on the real world the novel asks some interesting questions about the impact of the virtual on the realistic.
But for all its near future science Strange Flesh isn’t truly a science fiction novel. The questions seem incidental to the plot and as James becomes increasingly involved in Billy’s game there is a corresponding reliance on sex and fetish to drive the plot forward. Truth be told as the novel progressed it felt like the more sexual aspects of the novel began to obscure the mystery that the novel sets forth at its outset. This obfuscation lends the novel a ponderous air that forces the novel to drag.
Spoiler ahead, you’ve been warned!
One aspect of the novel involves the creation of a fully immersive and interactive sex focused virtual reality interface. While this part of the novel does tie into Billy and his game there is a bit too much focus spent on this aspect of the novel. Indeed it is these sections of the novel that felt the most like erotica and pulled attention away from the novel’s mystery. Much like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’s hundred page introduction to Swedish economics (which never seemed to intersect with the later plot of the novel) Strange Flesh’s interludes do not always seem to play an integral role in advancing the plot nor do they offer much of anything to the story as a whole.
As a debut novel Strange Flesh is a particularly impressive work that while flawed shows great promise. For all its meandering Strange Flesh is still a consistently compelling work with a mystery full of twists and turns down often dark and disturbing paths. This isn’t a novel for the squeamish or easily offended. Strange Flesh falls more into the mystery or psychological thriller category than it does science fiction and in truth the somewhat listless examination of the blending between virtual reality and actual reality left me hungry for something a bit more in depth.