Book Review: Emperor Mollusk vs. The Sinister Brain, by A. Lee Martinez

I didn’t set out on purpose to read and review Emperor Mollusk vs. The Sinister Brain right after watching Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, but the two are marginally related. A. Lee Martinez’s isn’t a historical mash-up, but it shares the same kind of kitchen-sink insanity theme that’s common to the mash-up genre.

Added bonus, A. Lee Martinez lives in a tiny little town near Dallas. Woo Texas authors! Wonder if I should make a tag for that.

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Emperor Mollusk vs. The Sinister Brain has its plot right there in the title. It’s wonderfully attention-grabbing in a 50’s sci-fi movie sort of way. The book is written from the perspective of Emperor Mollusk, a super-intelligent squid-creature from Neptune. Emperor Mollusk is a supervillain, of course, but he stands out from your typical Dr. Dooms and Lex Luthors in that he’s: A) actually successful in his conquest of Earth, and B) not that bad of a guy, for a supervillain.

See, Emperor Mollusk was able to conquer Earth bloodlessly, through mind control. At which point he busied himself by either cooking up goodies like limitless free energy, or fending off invasions from other aliens. Earth’s his planet, after all. That is, until he figured out that ruling a planet is a lot less fun than conquering it, so he retired.

Or at least, Emperor Mollusk tries to retire- the book kicks off with someone trying to kill him, using some of his own inventions. Pulpy craziness ensues as Emperor Mollusk hot-rods around the world trying to figure out just what’s going on, and what the mysterious Sinister Brain (it’s a brain in a jar, natch) has planned.

This is a rather silly book.

Emperor Mollusk vs. The Sinister Brain is definitely a ‘kitchen sink’ kind of book, as it features aliens from every planet of the solar system, robots, brains in jars, Atlantis, The Moon, an immortal mummy-queen, Shambala, and even a place called Dinosaur Island. Martinez has a lot of fun with the setting, offhandedly mentioning little gonzo details here and there, like how Martians are still terrified of Teddy Roosevelt. It’s even fairly interesting in that there are no named human characters- all the major players are aliens or other 50’s sci-fi creatures. My favorite of said weirdo monsters was Emperor Mollusk’s cybernetic centipede-monster, Snarg. Snarg behaves pretty much like a big ugly dog, which is consistently hilarious.

While the setting of Emperor Mollusk vs. The Sinister Brain is fun in a retro kind of way, the plot and characterization … aren’t. The problem is, Emperor Mollusk is just SO BRILLIANT that he’s planned for every possible eventuality. Which means he overcomes almost every obstacle thrown in his way with casual, trivial effort, over and over again. When Emperor Mollusk is surrounded by a platoon of Venusian soldiers, he can just flick a switch and turn off all their weapons. When his flying saucer is shot down, his escape pod ejects automatically and he lands safely on the ground. When confronted with a hypnotic dinosaur, Emperor Mollusk is naturally immune to its effects because he’s from Neptune.

On the one hand (or tentacle, in Emperor Mollusk’s case), you could argue that this is a throwback to the invincibility and omnicompetence of old pulp heroes like Doc Savage or Buck Rogers … but that was still cheap and hackneyed writing back then, too. I think my ultimate problem with this isn’t that Emperor Mollusk gets out of various horrible situations- it’s just that he gets through them without actually doing anything, and saying he’d planned ahead. A good cliffhanger presents a chance to show a character’s strengths as they get out of it, be it through fighting, talking, quick-thinking, whatever. For most of the novel, whenever Emperor Mollusk is confronted with a problem, a good percentage of the time he just pushes an “I win” button, and moves on. It grows really irritating, really fast.

On top of that, even though the book is written from Emperor Mollusk’s first-person perspective, he doesn’t really have a fun ‘voice.’ My guess is Martinez was going for a wry, deadpan kind of tone, but Mollusk doesn’t get in enough real zingers to make it work. Most of Mollusk’s dialogue (external and internal) revolves around him matter of factly saying “I’m smarter than you” in a couple different ways. The book really could have been picked up by a little bit of megalomaniacal ranting and cackling, even if it was a habit Emperor Mollusk was trying to break.

The funny thing is, while Emperor Mollusk reminds us over and over again how brilliant he is, the plot doesn’t really show it. He pretty much goes from one weirdo location to another, at which point something tries to kill him, but it doesn’t, because Emperor Mollusk is so awesome and has superior technology- and then it’s on to the next location for the next few chapters. He tries to tie it together at the end of the book, but the book is by no means a mystery. In fact, I found the big reveal at the end unsatisfying, as again, it really boiled down to “Emperor Mollusk wins because did some stuff off camera because he’s smarter than everyone else.”

While the characters are fairly flat, and the plot ramshackle, at least Emperor Mollusk vs. The Sinister Brain gets in some snappy jokes, which is really the point. There’s no societal commentary to the comedy, but it’s amusing enough.

Emperor Mollusk vs. The Sinister Brain is a great example of how hard it can be to capture that retro sci-fi feeling. The real hilarity of watching an old movie on MST3K comes from how earnest the bad movie is, no matter how terrible the actors or how cheap the special effects. Or heck, one could even look at The Room for a more modern example. All and all, retro, low-budget insanity can be a surprisingly hard vibe to pull off authentically.

Martinez falls short in capturing that vibe, but at least he gives it a good shot. Emperor Mollusk vs. The Sinister Brain is the literary equivalent of watching an old Roger Corman movie on a Sunday afternoon. It’s amusing enough, but it’s not the sort of thing that’s going to stick with you.

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