Bad monkeys / Matt Ruff
Bad monkeys is a weird novel to categorize. The author describes it as being inspired by Philip K. Dick, and I guess the influence is there, but it is more heavily plot-driven than Dick’s work and thematically it’s completely opposed to Dick’s work. There’s something of a twist ending which I will discuss but I’ll save that part for the end and leave it clearly marked.
Jane Charlotte has apparently murdered a man named Dixon. The bulk of the book occurs in the context of Charlotte’s interview with a psychiatrist, Dr. Vale, as she explains the justification for her actions as she claims to be an operative of the Department for the Final Disposition of Irredeemable Persons. Charlotte explains significant events in her life with a special emphasis on her relationship with her younger brother.
So how is it?
It’s a work I feel conflicted about. It’s a good read but there’s such a disconnect between Dick’s writing and Ruff’s themes that it doesn’t always work.
It’s an enjoyable read, but I don’t like it – that’s the best way I can come up with to describe my feelings. The dialogue is witty, Ruff does a good job keeping things bouncy and the book manages to be evocative without bogging itself down in too much exposition. My problem is that it’s thematically too dualistic. If Dick was a gnostic author, Ruff is a mainstream Christian one. The book itself isn’t bogged down in religious issues and it doesn’t attempt to sneak the author’s religion into an otherwise related plot, but it’s informed by a dualistic mindset where there exists things that are unequivocally Good, full stop, and others that are unequivocally Evil. To get a little high school English teacher-y, this is emphasized by the continuous portrayal of contrasting opposites – a black spot on a white tile, stuff like that.
In some ways it functions as an indirect attack on more modern sf stories. Science fiction and fantasy authors have been obsessed with moral grey areas for some time (and with the dominance of Martin & Game of thrones that’s never been more apparent than now). In the back matter of my edition, Ruff explicitly attacks that kind of thinking. It’s a bold move and it results in a story that’s fun but ultimately unsatisfying to me.
There’s a clear and obvious influence from 12 monkeys but it’s not really relevant and it doesn’t negatively impact the book.
Part of that is because of the twist. I’m not going to go into detail here, but I will say that I thought the twist was pretty stupid. I also don’t think Ruff is making the point he thinks he’s making with it. I’ll go into more detail later, but for now I’ll just sum it up by saying that the twist isn’t particularly shocking and doesn’t really alter the reader’s perception of what has gone before.
Bad monkeys is definitely something I recommend. It’s not exactly an sf novel, even if there are sf elements, so it’s an easier sell if presented correctly. In some ways it’s a better fit for non-sf readers.
It’s good for people who think Philip K. Dick is too “out there”. Along with The sparrow, it’s one of my go-to recommendations for readers who normally read “inspirational” fiction.
People have generally liked it but it’s not a book I feel proud about recommending. As with other books, that’s probably a reflection of my personal biases as there’s a definite clash of worldviews between the author and myself. When one party thinks that “certainty” is a dangerous notion at best and the other thinks that morality not predicated on absolute dualism legitimizes evil there’s not a lot of room to meet in the middle.
The rest of this post essentially spoils the twist so be aware
Ruff claims that he is trying to show how evil can be superficially charming. He points out how Charlotte states her crimes straight-out but does so in a way that de-emphasizes them so the reader forgives her because she seems so nice and likeable. The fact that one of the “signs” that Charlotte is actually evil is [clutches pearls] “she grew marijuana in the community garden” is underwhelming as well.
While I’d agree that Ruff does a good job of making the reader forgive or at least downplay Charlotte’s crimes I don’t think that his message works because of extratextual issues. Specifically, I think that the reader’s tendency to do those things has more to do with their knowledge that they are reading a novel and are thus accepting many of the tropes of the form. I think the twist is still somewhat effective, but more in the way the plot of Metal Gear Solid 2 is effective – it plays on the audience’s knowledge of the form and subverts it by refusing to provide the “correct” resolution to the setup. Because of the novels Christian underpinnings the effect is somewhat muted. I think Ruff’s insistence on an absolute dichotomy of good vs. evil also weakens the potential impact. I would have much preferred it if the message had been “nominally good people can do horrific things” or its more subversive reverse “People who do horrific things can also have good qualities”. Instead, the message essentially becomes “evil doesn’t run around in a Hallowe’en mask shouting “I’m Evil! I’m Evil! Let’s go murder some puppies!” which isn’t particularly new or enlightening. If you’re going to write a book that attempts to send a message about morality at least ask some difficult questions or do some real exploration.