In his 2004 debut novel, Move Under Ground, Nick Mamatas handled what could have been a gimmicky premise—a fight for the soul of America between H.P. Lovecraft’s evil chaos god Cthulhu and a ragtag crew of Beat writers led by Jack Kerouac—with intelligence, depth, and wit. Unfortunately, he’s on considerably shakier ground in his third novel, Sensation, which fumbles to an unfocused conclusion after a strong beginning.
Sensation’s central idea spins off from one of biology’s creepier parasitic relationships: the Costa Rican wasp Hymenoepimecis, which plants its eggs in a living victim, a spider of the genus Plesiometa, then chemically alters the spider’s behavior so it willingly builds a nest for the larvae that will eat it alive. Mamatas takes that a step further, imagining a secret war between the arthropods that has spilled over into our realm. Although the conflict has been raging for thousands of years, the humans are completely unaware of it, thanks to the Matrix-like machinations of the spiders, who have been keeping understandably quiet about the fact that they’re actually a collective superintelligence with long-term plans for a forcible symbiotic relationship with Homo sapiens. Both species envenom human minds for their own purposes; the wasps inspire anarchy and chaos, while the spiders seek conformity and control. Colonies of the arachnids observe and influence history in disguise, riding in the hollowed-out heads of artificially constructed “men of indeterminate ethnicity.”
The spiders’ carefully guarded secrecy is thrown into jeopardy when their wasp enemies sting an ordinary middle-class New York City woman, Julia Hernandez. The wasp venom is just as bizarrely potent on humans as spiders, and it wreaks profound changes in Julia’s personality. Without knowing she’s changing, Julia transforms into a radically different person, with anarchist politics and a brutally direct penchant for cutting right to the point. In Sensation’s most potent sequence, Julia leaves her husband Ray at gunpoint in the middle of sex, cruelly refusing to give a reason because “I like the idea that your stomach just turned to concrete.” With no apparent plan in mind, she becomes the catalyst of a nationwide movement of Dada-esque hipster anarchists, then murders a rich capitalist and turns fugitive. Ray watches this from afar in helpless confusion; the spiders view it with dispassionate alarm, certain it’s a new skirmish in the millennia-old deathlock with their insect enemies.
It’s a compelling setup worthy of Philip K. Dick, and Julia’s horrifying transformation seems like a promising jumping-off point for Mamatas to explore how biology affects the big questions of whether there’s any such thing as free will or a single “self.” Is Julia a helpless pawn driven insane by forces beyond her comprehension, or her own true self for the first time?
But after a strong first 50 pages, Mamatas doesn’t seem to know where to take his story. Julia’s anarchist revolution bogs down in annoying stunts and tired twists on Internet catchphrases, leading one bored sheriff to yawn that “there ain’t no criminal statutes against being tedious.” A mid-novel revelation of the wasps’ true motivations drains the book of any further dramatic potential, and even seems hostile to the idea of striving for positive change against oppression. Weirdly, Sensation throws its most caustic satiric barbs at hipster poseurs, not the near-totalitarian aims of the spiders, which comes across as if Mamatas has switched allegiances this time, from Kerouac to Cthulhu.