I finished “Dark Cities Underground” by Lisa Goldstein yesterday, and I’m still having some trouble figuring out exactly what to say about it, but I think I need to say something.
To begin with, I really adored the idea behind this book. While it isn’t entirely original, it is a very nice twist on several similar ideas seen in books by Jasper Fforde, Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, and Robert Rankin and is related in many ways to movies like “Stranger than Fiction”. It is a sort of meta-fiction where the line between fiction, mythology, and the real world is a sometimes elusive thing. If you are like me and enjoy that blurring of reality the basic premise of “Dark Cities Underground” is worth looking for despite the problems of the narrative.
Oh, the problems of this narrative.
For the record: I am not one that needs a lot of depth to my characters. I’ve been reading and enjoying mediocre SF and Fantasy for long enough that as long as the story or idea is good the characters can be borrowed from the front of a high sugar cereal box and I’m just fine with that. I do however have my limits and the lack of depth in Ms Goldstein’s characters is pretty amazing. I think that it might be possible to argue that this lack of depth could be appropriate for the meta-fiction context by placing simplistic characters in a blended world of fiction and reality except that my personal definition of meta-fiction involves putting realistic characters in that blended world where the edges of fiction and reality are vague. Without good characters my suspension of disbelief just can not kick in, and I end up writing a paragraph about how I didn’t like the characters.
Cardboard characters themselves would not by themselves inspire such caution about recommending this book to friends. The plot, or more specifically the author’s use of the Plot Stick of Doom, is where I get reticent to even mention this book. If you have ever watched classic horror or SF movies before George Lucas got into the industry you would be hard pressed not to have noticed the obvious strings, models, and primitive blue screens that were the state of the art until the late 1970s. If you have ever watched an episode of Star Trek and noticed that “rock” is Styrofoam or an episode of Doctor Who and the plethora of bubble-wrap costumes, you will have some idea of how subtle Lisa Goldstein is with plot. If you don’t like books that are telegraphed early and often you will not like this book.
Despite all of that I kind of liked it. Despite the flawed narrative the very interesting core idea is explored very well and in decent context. I still don’t think I can call it a good book, but it might be worth reading.