About a month ago I downloaded to my Kindle the sample chapter of The Strain, by Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan. I read the first couple of hundred words. ‘Total crap’, I thought, and deleted it.

A couple of weeks later Kelley brought home some books from the library, one of which was The Strain. I picked it up and was struck by the beautiful design. I opened it. Same crap beginning–but the book was lovely to touch. So I leafed ahead and stopped at the section titled The Beginning, and read. And was hooked. At least for a little while.

The prologue, the ‘Legend of Jusef Sardu’, is wordy and boring. The second beginning, ‘The Beginning’, is promising, in a broad-strokes-of-vampire-horror-tropes way: dead plane instead of dead ship, Modern Medicine vs. The Inexplicable, an Old Wise Van Helsing character, cast of thousands (ala The Stand–but much, much less interesting). After a hundred or so pages the broad strokes turn into minutely detailed vileness. The vast cast of secondary characters come into focus as lazily-written stereotypes, every single one, and all are explored to exactly the same level of mind-numbing, cliched detail. Tedious to the tenth power.

As for the female characters–they are so cliched that they give cardboard a bad name. Nora, an epidemiologist, does nothing but play the Scientist’s Girlfriend:

“Eph (Our Hero, The Scientist) stood in the book-lined hallway of Setrakian’s apartment. He was looking in on Zack eating a Devil Dog at the old’s man’s small kitchen table, where Nora was asking him about school, keeping him occupied and distracted.” (p.357)

That’s all Nora, t he qualified epidemiologist in the middle of an epidemic, does: feed people, wipe their foreheads, listen to their woes. It’s like reading really early pulp SF, but much less fun. I won’t bother talking about the Haitian nanny who does vodun (maybe they call it voodoo, I can’t remember), or the dim-bulb ex-wife. I find it mind-boggling that such a beautiful object was created in service of such drivel.

Which brings me to my point. On the Kindle, I knew immediately that this was a badly-written and poorly conceived story. I knew it after reading two or three hundred words. (Follow the link above and read the beginning for yourself.) Even at $9.99 I wanted nothing to do with it. The text stood as itself, unadorned; naked to my understanding; exposed in all its ugliness.

The print version ($26.99) beguiled me with its extra-textual lusciousness: the design, the illustrations, the font, the paper.

The Strain is a lovely object but a bad novel.

I’m beginning to think that the future of fiction is the Kindle and its ilk: text as text. All fonts the same. All scents and other sensory details, the same. With an ebook, the only distinguishing factor is the text itself, the ease with which is does or does not trigger our mirror neurons. I think digital book readers will save the novel; they will allow for quality (however each reader defines that for herself) to rise above other factors, at least once it’s in the reader’s hands. For now, for just a little while, we’ll know exactly what we’re getting. I wish it would stay that way. I know it won’t. At some point publishers will figure out how to individualise each book. The playing ground will become uneven again. Big Names will have fancier product.

So if you can afford it, start reading ebooks. Enjoy the brief golden age.

If you want to explore the subject further, take a look at last month’s Nicholson Baker’s appraisal of the Kindle reading experience. Let me know what you think.

Addendum: if you’re in the market for an ereader, here’s a great comparison chart from Dear Author.