This spring saw the release of two unrelated books in which a plague of terminal insomnia wreaks havoc on America. The two take very different approaches to this scenario, and based on the descriptions and early reviews, I was eager to read them both. Each book has some admirable features, but ultimately both of them disappointed me.
In BLACK MOON by Kenneth Calhoun, almost nobody can sleep anymore, and the prolonged insomnia results in madness. Within a few months, this leads to your standard breakdown of society: telecommunications and other utilities no longer function, cities are full of abandoned cars and looted buildings, and chances of survival aren't good for the small minority who are still able to sleep. What makes continued existence especially dangerous is that insomniacs are driven into a lethal rage by the sight of somebody sleeping.
The story switches between several protagonists who hold on to the ability to sleep while those around them become afflicted. This lets us watch the effects of the epidemic from several angles: an urban dweller goes searching for his missing insomniac wife, a suburban child is left on her own after her parents succumb, and scientists at a sleep lab desperately work on a cure. These plotlines also begin at different points in the crisis, including beforehand, which gives us a wider view on the situation.
It all seems like a strong concept for a novel, but I was never particularly engaged. I like post-apocalyptic settings, but this one felt generic. Some of the characters and storylines interested me, but I found others sort of annoying. So while I really expected to enjoy this book, it turned out to be merely so-so.
SLEEP DONATION, a novella by Karen Russell, starts out promising, with a lot of clever worldbuilding and the makings of an intricate plot. In Russell's version of the insomnia epidemic, a large portion of the population is affected, but enough people are left untouched that it's been possible to develop treatments for this ultimately fatal condition. Donations of sleep collected from healthy sleepers, in a system much like a blood drive, are used to prolong the lives of insomnia sufferers and in some cases cure them.
The main character is a recruiter for the Slumber Corps. She's great at appealing to donors with the heartbreaking story of her sister, one of the first victims of the insomnia. One of her recent recruits is an infant known as Baby A, whose sleep is so pure that it can be distributed unfiltered. Baby A is the only discovered universal donor, which means there's a desperate need for her sleep, and her parents are starting to have misgivings.
I enjoyed most of this novella. The idea of sleep donation is a neat one, and the concept was explored pretty well. Several good complications arise early in the story, and I was looking forward to watching the plot come together in what would surely be a mind-blowing way. Then the story just ended, with nothing really explained or concluded. I don't demand to have all stories neatly tied up, but this ending was so unsatisfying that it made what came before it feel pointless.
It's unfortunate that neither of these books really worked for me, but it was interesting to be aware of their serendipitous publication and to compare different ideas of how an insomnia epidemic could play out.
Good Stuff Out There:
→ In The Atlantic, Chris Beckett champions The Underrated, Universal Appeal of Science Fiction: "Modern realist novels--the kind that would most often be categorized as 'non-genre'--make up characters and situations, but set them against a backdrop that purports to be the world we actually live in. This allows writers to explore the psychology of different characters and allows us to look out of eyes other than our own. I like to make up situations and characters, too, and for the same kinds of reasons, but I also like to go an extra step and make up the world as well. This allows me to reflect on the way we relate to the world, and on society." (Thanks, Lauren!)