Genres are a pretty handy story-telling device, aren’t they? When someone talks about writing a Fantasy, we know that orcs, dragons, swords and so on are probably going to be involved. Sci-Fi will have spaceships and aliens. Steampunk will have airships. I suppose genre rules can be limiting — but only if the writer lets them be. Otherwise, you can play with them, mix them up, deconstruct them and generally use them as tools to tell some entertaining and fun stories. That’s what The Actuator: Fractured Earth by James Wymore and Aiden James is all about and, despite a few problems, it does a good job of bouncing between genres like a hyperactive reader going through a book catalogue.
The plot sounds complex, but is actually pretty simple. There’s this top secret government program called the Actuator that lets special scientists — called Machine Monks — visualize and create worlds of fiction. They can dream up a Pirate World or a Fantasy World like they’re super-powered imagineers at the ultimate Disneyland. However, as soon as the book starts, something goes wrong and the entire real world gets filled with their imagination lands. So now everything is a patchwork quilt, with a Fantasy Land stuck next to a Steampunk Land, a Native American Legend Land, a Pirate Land off the coast of California and so on. The base with the Actuator gets attacked by orcs and a dragon and soon only a couple of scientists and guards have survived. The protagonist, a security guard called Red and his awesomely/ridiculously nicknamed sword-wielding Korean pal Dragon Star go on the run with some of their friends. To return the world to normal, they’ve got to go into each of the genre worlds, swipe the special Keys and then plug them back into the Actuator.
It’s a cool set-up and one which lets the writers tell stories in any sort of genre they want. As they cross boundaries between genres, their vehicles, clothes and weapons change to reflect that — along with the challenges they have to face. The book does a great job of moving quickly between genres. As soon as your bored of Fantasy, the characters are heading into Steampunk Land — and then they’re going somewhere else. I wanted to keep reading just to see where they were going next and to see if my favorite genres would be represented. There’s no Hardboiled Noir Land for instance, though maybe they’re saving that for the sequel. Wymore and James also provide the neat, common sense revelation that most of these genre worlds wouldn’t be that great to actually live in. We like visiting Fantasy worlds in video games and movies, but getting barbecued by a dragon in real life is pretty awful. Vampire worlds and pirate worlds have similarly obvious downsides. The Machine Monks, however, can get obsessed with their lands, no matter the trouble they cause, and don’t really want the world to change back — which gives Red and Dragon Star another headache as they try to put things right.
However, there were a few problems with The Actuator that kept me from totally enjoying its whacky genre-hopping. The prose was decent, but also rather dull and workmanlike. With such fantastic sights, I was hoping for more figurative language instead of the basic description of what things looked like. Instead, everything felt very basic and rote. It wasn’t what a fantastic story like this deserved. The dialogue also seemed a little lackluster and few characters sounded unique or stood out.
Another problem? The story starts just as The Actuator goes wrong and Red is dealing with orc-transformation and chaos, so we never get to know his character. He’s freaking out because of orcs, which seems like something anyone would do and you never get to know what he’s like normally. Because of that, he remains sort of a blank slate until he tells Dragon Star about his past about halfway through the book. This is a plot device that I saw recently in the new AMC show Low Winter Sun and was one of that program’s (many) problems. Starting with the character immediately facing down some emergency like orcs attacking or killing a fellow cop may be exciting, but you never get to see what the character is like outside of a crazy situation, you never really get a feel for their personality and you don’t really sympathize or care about them. Breaking Bad averts this nicely (though it does use a small flash-forward to grab your attention at the very beginning). You get to see a day in the life of Walter White before his fateful diagnosis, you learn about him and care about him — and it makes everything that follows matter more. Red remains sort of a blank slate throughout The Actuator, and only gets a some development towards the end.
Luckily, it does end on a cliffhanger so there’ll probably be a sequel. Hopefully, Wymore and James can spend some time really making the prose sing to bring these fantastic worlds to life and do a better job of conveying characters. In the mean time, I’ll have to go to Disneyland and bounce between Tomorrowland and Frontierland to get my genre-hopping fix.