Hot Off the Presses scours the internet for newly published books from unknown authors, and saves everyone else the trouble of actually reading books to find out if they’re good or not. This is meant for entertainment purposes only, not serious consumer advice. And there will be spoilers.
Oh boy, science fiction! What a welcome departure from the romance and fantasy that clogs the ranks of new releases. Just listen to author Deborah Dugan talk about the metaphysical:
“When writing a book, each question requires a plausible resolution within the context of the story. There are permutations within each resolution, expanding outward like ripples from a stone thrown into still water, which take the author into the if/then zone.”
This is it. It’s finally happening, people. I am going to love this book. What’s it about? The Traveler is a science fiction story that mostly centers on the budding romance between a young man and a spider. Yeah. Yeah, no, that’s good too. If nothing else, this blog has taught me to just George Bush my way through unpromising ideas. Let’s see where this goes.
Our perspective character Tristan, Trixie to his friends, lives a very ordinary life. Like, Privet Drive ordinary. He’s in his early thirties, lives alone, and works at a thankless corporate job that actually sounds on paper like it would be pretty good. You know the drill, rom-com protagonist. He lives in Region, where there are frequent weathers. He watches sportball game with his friend Dan from office. I’m running over this stuff pretty quickly, but Trixie treats us to exhaustive descriptions of every aspect of his life, from the amount of sugar in his current cup of coffee, to the amount of sugar he would normally have put in his coffee. The bonkers level of detail is constant, and we’ll revisit this later but before life imitates art I really want to move on. Trixie Bradshaw does have one special quirk, as is required by custom. He is arachnophobic.
Then one day a large tarantula named Harry crawls out of his bathroom vent and makes a bashful introduction. The two new roommates sit down to a cup of Joe and a croissant, and determine that each of them is safe with the other. Trixie finds it hard to overcome his arachnophobia, but comes to appreciate the way Harry has shaken up his boring life. Of course, Harry isn’t really a spider. Spiders don’t normally talk, for one thing. Harry is something else, which isn’t fully revealed until the end of the book. The phrase “what the hell is going on” gets tossed about far too flippantly, but I think it’s appropriate here. Though he struggles to explain what he is to his new (and only) friend, Harry does manage a breakdown of auras, string theory, and the resonant frequencies of each individual. The physics of vibration is what allows him to calm Trixie’s fear, through subtle wigglings of his body hair that affect and assuage the young man’s anxiety.
Personally I don’t mind spiders. I don’t love them, but I certainly find them less repulsive than, say, iceberg lettuce-based salads. And Dugan manages to make her descriptions of Harry surprisingly charming, so to any readers out there with a problem with spiders, don’t worry; that’s not the thing that’s going to break you.
Since they have the whole weekend, Trixie and his new friend Harry decide to watch a movie together on the couch. We get an explanation of how Trixie comes to trust Harry enough to sit next to him, and how he comes to care about Harry enough to give him a good spot on the arm rest of the sofa. For his part Harry learns to trust someone more deeply than he has in the past, what with the whole looking like a walking nightmare and all. Even though there are other movies to watch, they choose the Matthew Broderick Godzilla. And love it. This is never explained. And have I mentioned lately that what the hell is going on?
Now fully in love with the spider, Trixie goes to work on Monday and we meet colorful characters like Dan and Girl. We also find out that while Harry and Trixie learning to love one another is the main plot, it’s also a framing device for vignettes from Harry’s past. A full twelve percent of the book is dedicated to a flashback of Harry escaping a murder of crows to get into Trixie’s house. It’s an extended flashback in which a talking spider hatches a convoluted plan to get away from birds. You see, he has to tie snow pea tendrils to a zinnia flower, so he can create a diversion, and boy does it not go according to plan! Have you ever played a game called Frog Fractions? If you have, you’ll know what was going through my mind after a few dozen pages of this.
The story bounces between Trixie and Harry tossing cute couple banter back and forth like a beach ball, flashbacks to Medieval times, the aftermath of Trixie’s failed relationship with Selfies-and-Makeup, a Subway restaurant, hilarious “therapy spider” hijinks, an impromtu catbox made from coffee grinds, and labyrinthine descriptions of Trixie’s painfully mundane life. I’m worried you might think I’m being glib when I call this a romance. But this is not subtext. It may not be a sexual relationship, but Tristan and the bathroom spider are in love, and the plot follows the beats of a romance story.
Now by the conventions of narrative fiction, there are only two ways a romance like this can go. Option one is a contrived misunderstanding, probably involving Tristan taking advantage of his new freedom from arachnophobia to get a job at the exotic pet veterinary clinic, only to be spotted by Harry while tending to the injured gams of a beautiful lady spider. The other option is that society or circumstance cannot allow these two star-crossed soulmates to be together (probably because they’re a man and a spider), and they must battle against fate to be together. I won’t tell you which way it goes, but when it goes, it goes all the way.
Science fiction is a genre trapped in a web of interlocking opinions and definitions. You can’t swing an improbability drive without hitting someone eager to gatekeep what is and is not SF. We get a mention of string theory in this book, and some speculative evolution, so I’m just going to bang my pathetic little gavel and say it counts. But is it good SF? Asimov famously posited three kinds of science fiction. There’s gadget fiction, like those golden age stories about shooting the moon in the eye with a man bullet. There is apparently adventure fiction, where the science is a dramatic prop for the action, like a ninja movie where all the ninjas have laser shurikens, but we’ve all agreed to never write these anymore. And then there’s social fiction, in which the science is just a catalyst to a more pressing personal drama. This last is often treated as the “best” one, because those gatekeeping nerds ruin everything. In the sense that The Traveler consists almost exclusively of personal drama brought into motion by a robot/alien/whatever giant talking tarantula with string theory powers, I would say it’s solidly in the third category. And that makes it the best kind of science fiction. QED.
In all seriousness, “love laughs at locksmiths” isn’t an unprecedented message for a SF story to have, and you can tell the author has a real knack for the kind of cute repartee this approach requires. Once I got past the fact that I was reading a love story between a man and a spider, and I mean seriously what the hell is going on, I had to admit, the quality of the prose is excellent. When it comes to the nuts and bolts of evocative, grammatically coherent writing, Deborah Dugan is easily on par with many traditionally published authors. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is a career writer who simply adopted a pseudonym because it was just too embarrassing to attach their name to a story where Arthur Dent crushes on Shelob for a hundred and fifty pages. If you like platonic romance or you’re the absolute worst kind of furry there could possibly be, this is a must. It is more than worth the three dollar price tag on Kindle.
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