The Plot: Computer programmer Joe Norton juggles a series of awkward relationships with women while working for a tech company that’s facing a merger. As if this isn’t bad enough, he experiences strange and disturbing hallucinations and nightmares, in some of which he is offered a rifle for an unknown purpose. Maybe they’re psychotic episodes. Or worse — maybe he’s somehow caught a virus from one of the computer programs he works with. Accident, conspiracy or karma? Joe struggles to make sense of it all, growing ever more flummoxed and distressed. He seeks answers from coworkers, girlfriends and a psychiatrist, embarking on a search for his “home brain.”
The Characters: Joe is a middle-aged guy with a pretty drab life. His reality doesn’t quite measure up to his rather modest expectations. He goes to work, eats TV dinners in front of the “UltraScreen,” changes girlfriends frequently and anxiously. To be honest, it’s pretty hard to care much about him. The other characters, seen through Joe’s eyes (since he’s the narrator) range from quirky to repellent. The most sympathetic ones are Harry, a coworker, and Giselda, the boss’s assistant, but even they are somewhat peculiar.
The Setting: Philadelphia in the fall — as described by Joe, a pretty bleak place. Gritty streets of drab brick buildings. Joe’s girlfriends’ apartments, the office where he works, the eateries he frequents. And a variety of “virtual” situations — airplanes (or airships?), transit stations in space, windowless rooms, festering jungles.
On the plus side, Gray produces good prose. He assembles well-chosen words into coherent sentences, often creating vivid images or displaying a sly humour:
Distracted from the flimsy newsprint, I rode forward carried along on a wave — no, a rising tide — of compulsion toward a greater reality, a more expansive dimension than I had known. At the same time neither joy not freedom beat in my heart. Too much instead of that dark dread, the taste of black ooze in my mouth. And I don’t mean the coffee.
Even though the plot revolves around computer programs and virtual reality, the occasional occurrences of technical language are not incomprehensible. Readers who can relate to metaprograms, branching logic and metamovers that window to lot-caches may derive more from the story than those who do not, but the latter can skim over those sections without losing the thread.
The premise of the novel is interesting and original. Unfortunately, its execution bogs down in excessive detail soon after the opening scenes. The first quarter of the book, in which the drabness of Joe’s life is contrasted with his bizarre visions, is excruciatingly slow. Finding little to charm or captivate me, I nearly bailed around page 40; only my resolve to finish the book in order to write this review kept me going. By page 100, I was intrigued. Joe was starting to engage with his problem and trying various strategies to solve it.
Sadly, this promising thread frayed out into a repetitious series of further bizarre incidents with little coherence. Reaching the end of the novel became my primary motivation again, rather than a desire to discover the reason for Joe’s weird experiences and curiosity about how things work out for him. I wasn’t willing to wallow in disembodied strangeness again and again. “Goodbye Joe, and good luck,” I thought, but since the end was in sight, I kept plugging away.
I’m happy to say that the final 20 pages brought a fairly satisfying resolution. Despite (or perhaps because of) its denseness, PsyBot is a book that gives a reader plenty to think about.
My rating: 6 out of 10 stars. In my 10-star rating system, 6 stars means “Good but unremarkable.” In the case of PsyBot, I would change this to “Potentially good but hard to engage with.”
And, of course, there is one copy of PsyBot available to users of the Greater Victoria Public Library as part of its Emerging Local Authors Collection.