Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Review of The Cookie Monster by Vernor Vinge



There are times in my reading life that I come across stories that are so simplistically presented, so presumptuous of reader intelligence, and so poorly effected, that I shake my head in wonder.  Vernor Vinge’s 2003 novella The Cookie Monster has my head on a swivel.  Before I rant, I will give the story the respect of summing up its premise. 

The Cookie Monster is the story of Dixie Mae, a customer support specialist working for the biggest corporation in the world (imaginatively) named LotsaTech.  Her adjacent cube worker receiving a lascivious email about her one day, the two start an investigation based on clues in the email’s header.  Moving to other buildings in the Microsoft-esque campus, things take a turn for the weird when they discover time has shifted by one hour.  But by the end of their investigation, time is not the only thing that has warped.  Reality itself flipped on its head, their corporate life was only a fa├žade they must come to terms with. 

Such a premise sounds normal, perhaps even intriguing, yes?  In the hands of Vinge, however, all feasibility and interest are drained.  And it starts with style.  Amateur to say the least, here is a small sample:

    Ellen had been walking ahead. She dropped back so they were three abreast.
    "Either we’re being toyed with," she said, "or they haven’t caught on to us."    Dixie Mae touched the email in her pocket. "Well, somebody is toying with us."

Hollywood B-move writers nod their heads in approval: “Such witty dialogue, that will fill the seats with sheeple.”

If the story were developed with an iota more integrity such mundane, obvious dialogue would be forgiveable.  But again, Vinge can’t inject any sense of engaging plausibility into the plot—even admitting it himself at one point: “The token holder said, ‘That email has turned out to have more clues than a bad detective story. Every time we’re in a jam, we find the next hidden solution.’  Such lines lead one to believe there will be a twist, something that subverts the (indeed) cheesy story built to date.  On hopeful wings I kept expecting the Nancy Drew crew to have the rug pulled out from underneath them, and subsequently me.  But it never was; Vinge was serious!

Perhaps I am driven more mad than others by such antics, but when a group of characters stand in a circle for half a story (literally in this novella’s case) speculating on the smallest of clues and are then able to infer the entire grand conspiracy behind their situation (including passwords!), I’m left tearing my hair out.  Where’s the development of background?  Where’s the movement of story?  Where’s the underlying sense of realism that helps the reader suspend their disbelief?  Instead of telling me via endless character dialogue, why not show me in a manner real humans discover things—trial and error as it were? Suffice to say, the story shifts frustratingly easy from idea to idea without any being fully explored, just skimmed over.  Brainwashing? Meh.  Cloning?  Ok.  AI?  Sure, what’s next to surprise me with? 

In the end, The Cookie Monster is proof that style and method matter in storytelling.  I have no doubt that the basic story premise is a good one, and in the hands of a better writer could be manifested in interest building.  But if a story is presented to the reader in the simplest of terms against a background realized in the most amazing leaps of inference via characters that are talking heads rather than active participants in the setting, and all in a writing style that is amateur, what’s the use?  The Cookie Monster is dull story with empty purpose.  Vinge finds the time to digress about sci-fi authors who have described variations of cloning in their stories, but fails to find the time to develop the integrity of his own story in any complementary fashion.  Bill Watterson, in fact, uses the transmogriphier in Calvin & Hobbes with far more maturity and intelligence—and it’s literally a cartoon.

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