I’ve enjoyed JA Konrath’s writing for a while. I read his blog whenever it updates, and I even downloaded his non-fiction ebook of collected essays on writing, The Newbie’s Guide to Publishing, for my Kindle and read a few entries a day.
One particular entry grabbed my attention more than others. In it, Konrath talked about the process behind writing a high-concept technothriller called Origin in which scientists had found Satan and imprisoned him in an underground lab for study. The novel never made it through the gatekeepers for one reason or another, and eventually, Konrath released it himself as an ebook.
The premise really interested me because I love a good technothriller, but I’m pretty tired of the DaVinci Code clones and their religious artifacts and conspiracy theories. Even though Origin deals with a “religious artifact,” Satan himself a little unique than a piece of Noah’s Ark or Jesus’ genealogy.
And because I intended to read his fiction but never had, I figured Origin hit my genre tastes a little closer than crime fiction. So I tossed my $3 to Amazon, and downloaded Origin to my Kindle.
I didn’t like how the book started. The prologue, while necessary, felt a little stilted. It felt like the author was trying too hard to sound historical rather than entertaining. However, I understand that the section was necessary for the rest of the book because someone had to find the creature thought to be Satan (called Bub for the rest of the book—short for Beelzebub) in 1906.
After that minor hiccup, the novel really picked up. I like the protagonist Andy, mainly because he’s a language nerd. In a situation similar to Daniel Jackson on Stargate, Andy is drawn into a secret government program based on his expertise in translating ancient languages. Since Bub is now awake for the firs time in 100 years, he’s talking, and the team needs to be able to communicate.
The first few chapters are spent introducing the characters, and are generally less interesting than the rest of the book. But that’s typical for any ensemble work. We can’t care about these characters and their situations until we know them, and Konrath does a good job of letting us get a grasp on just what kind of fractured lives they’ve lived, which in my case typically resulted in sympathy or revulsion, depending on the character. I count that as a win for the author because I was never ambivalent toward anyone in the novel.
Which is amazing since all the characters have the LOST syndrome: they are all deeply flawed and seeking redemption. I was impressed that all their journeys for redemption involved studying the devil, and that only through him that they could finally be saved.
It’s an interesting concept that a lot of authors would shy away from, but it works very well for Origin.
If the novel were populated by mundane Everymen, I wouldn’t care what happened to them. If it were not an alcoholic Rabbi or babynapping doctor, I wouldn’t even remember who they were after they got ripped apart by demons. But because they’re flawed, because they’re all looking for Faustian salvation (whether they know it or not), I care about them, and I want to see what happens.
When Things Get Rough
As in any good technothriller, things go horribly wrong, and all kinds of awful situations present themselves. Konrath has a near-Stephen King way with gore and action sequences, making me vividly see people and animals being ripped apart, exploding, mutating, and being eaten alive in the most gruesome ways imaginable.
Bub is a villain on a magnitude books rarely get, and he shows it. He has a taste for eating live sheep (and people!), and has an uncanny ability to make me laugh when he demands his keepers for more Internet time. Yes, he demands time on the Internet. It’s glorious. Konrath really does a good job at making Bub a masterful liar, playing well into various theological visions of the Adversary.
What really gets me is how little chaos Bub himself actually sows. Much of the action in the book is through minor demons. Sure, Bub created them though his wacky reproductive system (he injects venom into people or animals that resequences their DNA into whatever he wants), but his involvement is often more like a General at war than a prisoner making a break for it.
And I like that. Satan would have minions doing his dirty work, and he would manipulate people to reach his goals. I don’t see the biggest bad getting his hands dirty unless he had to.
The book moves along with nearly non-stop action, which is a good thing. There are enough scientific interludes regarding genetics and physics to keep me interested in the novel, but the plot itself is action action action, which is what Konrath has said that he sets out to do.
He writes books that people can enjoy on the beach (or in my case, sitting at the hospital, waiting for my baby nephew to be born). While there are a few moments of philosophical pondering between the wonderfully titled “holies”—a duo comprised of a disgruntled Rabbi and Catholic Priest—most of the book involves characters finding a way to not be killed by either Bub or nuclear explosions, and it’s fun to watch what happens. Some people live, some people die, and by the end of the book, I was genuinely satisfied with the amount of demon-inspired mayhem I witnessed.
I wasn’t looking for deep, existential musings about life and death. I was looking for a fun read that made indefinite hours of waiting bearable, and Origin did just that.
Though Origin is a technothriller, there are far more genres at work than in popular examples like Dan Brown. Konrath blends a lot of horror into Origin, and that’s what really made the book for me. There was always a feeling of dread, and as characters walked down dark hallways or crept through ventilation ducts, the sense of foreboding never left. I was legitimately curious as to what Bub was going to do next because, even though the author established the parameters of his abilities, there was always something interesting to be done with it that I hadn’t thought of.
I like hybrid-genre works. Unfortunately, mainstream publishers do not. I agree with what Konrath said in the afterword: there may be too many genres at play here to reach a mainstream audience. And I think that’s sad. Here is a novel that succeeds at combining SF, suspense/thriller, and horror without becoming hokey, yet fails to find an audience because of it.
It makes me sad, but such is life. No one said that publishing was fair. But people do say that publishing is changing. Authors like Konrath out there who successfully utilize self-publishing are the ones changing it, too. Even though there might not be a million-seller in Origin because there’s no clear-cut genre audience to market, there is the fringe audience form many genres there who can still support the author’s work.
There are thousands of people like me who enjoy off-the-cuff books and movies. There’s a reason that Firefly did so well on DVD. There is a market—an admittedly niche market—for hybrid genre fiction, and Origin falls into that. The horror elements blend with the SF and the suspense until I’m not sure what to really classify it as, but it works.
The only genre in the book I didn’t care for was romance. The two leads falling in love, Andy and Sun, never really seemed natural to me. It was a little forced, and even other characters commented on it, saying that they couldn’t believe it was happening because they’d known each other just a few days. I agree; their relationship progressed in a way that never felt natural, and I think the novel would have been a little stronger if the time Konrath spent on them was spent on another few interview sessions with Bub or a flashback.
Overall, I can’t complain about the novel. I liked the blended-genres, I liked the characters, and I thought Konrath’s use of the science of Satan was unique. I’d never read anything like it. It was fast, fun, and (maybe most importantly) cheap.
I consider myself lucky: Origin was the first self-published book I’ve ever read. And it was good. With all the horror stories out there about the garbage that self-publishing floods the market with, I am glad my first experience was a good one. It was good enough that I intend to read more by Konrath and probably other self-pubbed authors. I like indie music and movies, so why not books, too?
My final thought is this: for under $3, what have you got to lose? I don’t mind supporting new authors, especially if it’s not going to break my pocketbook. My budget can’t support $10-20 on books that I can’t guarantee I’ll enjoy, but I can toss $2-3 around on a trial. Which is why I think there’s a huge future in self-published ebooks for mid-list authors.
Konrath’s stance on ebooks and how he promotes his brand is unique. He offers free copies of his books (including Origin) on his website. He’s that sure you’ll buy another one of his books. And you know what? It works. I will buy another one of his books. Consider it a down-payment on my future, a pay-it-forward kind of thing.