Mercury Falls by Robert Kroese
You all know I love apocalypses, if that is indeed the correct pluralization. There's just something about the end of the world that really gets me going, and if it can be done with some sense of humor and insight, that's even better.
Mercury Falls has the distinction of being the first full-length book I've read on my Kindle, and let me say that it was a good christening. While I'm not writing a Kindle review, I have to admit that the device works very well. It's easy to read, easy to make notes and mark interesting passages, and it fits in my bag a lot better than a 352 page paperback would. So, score one for the Kindle.
This being the ADD Age of Twitter, I don't exactly remember how I first ran across Robert Kroese. He may have been re-tweeted by someone, or popped up on a Facebook update, or implanted into my mind while I slept (thank you, Dreamr.com!) I don't know. What I do know is that the man is relentless in promoting his work. He keeps up an excellent level of interactivity with his Twitter and Facebook followers and finds ways to increase the word-of-mouth marketing that he needs, since this book was self-published and can use all the marketing help it can get. Under his incessant barrage, I bought the book for the Kindle, and it turned out to be fortuitous. Divinely inspired, perhaps, as though it were part of a larger plan. Hmmm....
One of the central themes of the End of the World, whether it's the Biblical Apocalypse or any other, is that it has to happen. There's just no way around it - sooner or later the forces of Good and the forces of Evil will duke it out on the Earth to see who's the baddest bunch around. When asked why they would bother, the usual answer is that it's part of God's Plan, and that's all we need to know. So we imagine that while we miserable humans must be kept in the dark, there must be someone who knows what's going on. A prophet, perhaps the angels who are doing the fighting - God, definitely, right?
Not really, Kroese suggests.
He presents the reader with a celestial bureaucracy that makes the U.S. Government look like a small-town McDonald's on a slow day. There are levels within levels, rank upon rank of angelic bureaucrats and agents and paper-pushers, all working towards what they believe the Divine Plan involves. The problem is that no one is entirely sure what that plan actually is. But like all good bureaucrats everywhere, they don't care. There are rules, there are regulations, and they must be followed. What happens, however, when the Plan breaks down? Well, that's when things get messy.
The human woman Christine Temetri, a reporter on the apocalypse beat at a nationally-read newspaper, The Banner, is about to find out just how awry things can go when the Divine Plan gets all cocked up. On an assignment to cover the latest skirmish between Israel and Syria, Christine is entrusted with a Very Important
Only he's not a cult leader, really. He's an angel. A fallen one, yes, but an angel nonetheless, and he's the only angel who plans to sit out the end of the world. He's happy to do card tricks and play ping-pong, at least until Christine shows up and drags him back into the fray. Together, they have to not only figure out how to stop the apocalypse, but how to make sure they stop the right apocalypse, and see to it that it's done with as little damage as possible. They don't really succeed on that last part, but they certainly make a valiant effort.
The entertainment in this book is not so much in the plot, which is in the political thriller mode with twists and turns and reveals a-plenty, to say nothing of shootings, explosions and pillars of fire. There are two major things that make the book entertaining.
First is the cosmology that Kroese has built up. The idea of a Heavenly Bureaucracy is not a new one, but he takes it rather a step further. In one scene, a couple of angels are taking pity on humanity because we pitiful humans are running around, making decisions without knowing for sure whether they're right or wrong. The angels believe they are superior in that they have a Plan to follow - but they freely admit that they aren't entirely sure if the Plan they're following is the right one. "We assume that we're part of a system that ultimately makes sense to [the Archangel] Michael, or God, or someone. All the little details may not make sense to us, but we go along with it anyway." In other words, the angels are just like us, except that they can fly, do miracles, and are immortal. The bastards. In a later section, the characters are given a look at how the whole celestial bureaucracy is set up, and discover that even the angels don't know for sure who's actually in charge of anything. They just do what the Plan tells them to do and hope for the best.
So what we have here is a bureaucratic cosmology. It works, but no one is entirely sure how it works. And as Christine discovers, the benefit to not knowing the actual plan is that you are then free to do what you think is right. While the book is obviously centered around the Judeo-Christian framework, it's not a religious book. It doesn't address whether there is or is not a God, or whether religion is a fundamental necessity to humanity or a primitive hang-up, or neither, or both. What it's about is the idea of choice, a topic covered pretty explicitly in chapter thirteen. The boiled-down version is that we may or may not have free will, and we can never really know, so it's best to just pretend that we do. What this means, then, is maintaining a healthy dose of skepticism about what you are told is the right or necessary thing to do.
This does lead to some editorializing at times, which is pretty obvious when you hit it. As soon as you get to a section where two characters are engaged in a Socratic dialogue with each other, you definitely get the feeling that it's Kroese putting his two cents in. This would be annoying if I disagreed with him, or if it was written with less wit. As it stands, I read it with the kind of patience I reserve for my really funny friends when they hit a topic they actually care about - I'll listen along, because I know it'll be good, but at the same time I'll feel a little uncomfortable that they've decided to be serious for once.
Which brings me to the second reason I enjoyed the book - it's damned funny. It reminded me in various places of Douglas Adams' Dirk Gently books, as well as the fine work of Christopher Moore. There was plenty of narrative commentary, which was sarcastic and biting, and the characters often matched wits with each other at lightning speed. There were many parts that I re-read because I was sure I had missed something in the exchange, and it turned out I was right - and what I had missed was worth going back for. I put my Kindle's highlighting function to good use, let me just say that. While I have trained myself to hold in my guffaws, in accordance with social norms here in Japan, there were a few points where I just couldn't help but draw the stares of my fellow train passengers.
On a tangent: there was a moment in the book that made me think of the infamous LJ RaceFail of '09, something I had hoped to not have to think of again for a while. When Christine meets Mercury for the first time, we're introduced to two people. One is a short, dumpy man of Chinese ancestry, and the other is a tall, handsome white guy, and they're playing ping-pong. When Christine asks for Galileo Mercury, the tall, handsome white guy leads her to believe that his opponent is the one she wants. He then reveals, of course, that he's just messing with her. "Is there some law," he says, "that a Chinese dude can't be named Galileo?" And then, "But you have to admit, it would be pretty funny if Galileo Mercury was a Chinese dude." He then sends the Chinese dude out to get some sodas.
This made me ask myself, "Well... why not? Why couldn't Galileo Mercury have been a dumpy Chinese guy?" It's not really apropos of anything - the presumed ethnicity of the character (who is an angel, after all) is utterly irrelevant to the rest of the story - but I would have been very impressed if Kroese had made his celestial action hero a less obvious action hero. Just a thought. Tangent over.
So, a fine first novel from a clever new author. You really can't ask for much more than that, in my opinion, and I look forward to seeing more of Kroese's work in the future. As he improves his craft, he may become a force to be reckoned with in the fantasy/comedy genre, so keep your eyes on him.
"My philosophy is that if you can make one person laugh, you're already doing better than John Calvin."
- Mercury, Mercury Falls
Robert Kroese's homepage
Mercury Falls on Amazon.com
Mattress Police - Robert Kroese's blog