Book Review: Jason Scott Nebel’s Atom Town

So, for the record, I haven’t gotten flooded out with the ridiculous amount of rain that’s hit Houston. Lucky me!

Though with all the road closings and such, I HAVE been staying in. Ostensibly, I’d use this as a chance to get caught up on my reading … but I’ve mostly been having a go at Sunless Sea, which is a rather entertaining (if occasionally frustrating) video game.

I’ve at least done some reading, however, which brings us to Jason Scott Nebel’s Atom Town. Or, more specifically, Atom Town, Book One: It Came From 1958!

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See, being a hipster and being a nerd are very similar pursuits. There’s a little thrill to be found in ‘discovering’ an obscure comic or book or whatever before someone else does. (For the record, I liked Deadpool before he was cool). With this in mind (and also ’cause I had a coupon), I went ahead and snagged a copy of Atom Town. Self publishing’s a chancy thing, I know, but let’s hear it for reading dangerously. Or something.

This … may have been a mistake.

Not to be a snob, but the problem with a lot of self published work (and, honestly, a lot of regularly published work), is that a lot of it is terrible. Sturgeon’s Law: “90 percent of everything is crud.” And … unfortunately, Nebel’s Atom Town goes to fall in that 90 percent.

At arm’s length, the plot of Atom Town sounds halfway interesting. Eve Adams, a kick-ass secret agent (with amnesia) is sent back in time to solve a murder. 1950’s B-movie screwiness ensues, with giant spiders and aliens and strange radioactive deserts. The problem is … well, everything else in the book.

Y’know that one guy you knew on back in 8th grade? (Or maybe you still know them, I won’t judge). The one who thought he was so damn funny because he watched too much Monty Python, and therefore thought ‘randomness’ was the height of comedy? Where he would yell random crap like “FISH PANTS!” and expect you to laugh? (And maybe you did, because you were a stupid 8th grader. I won’t judge).

I get the feeling Jason Scott Nebel was that guy.

The problem with “random” comedy is that, to actually be, y’know, funny, it needs a point of reference, a contrast between the mundane and the surreal. That’s why so many Monty Python sketches involve someone just as befuddled as the audience to all the whackiness going on. These characters were often played by Graham Chapman: case in point, King Arthur. Atom Town … doesn’t have that frame of reference. Ostensibly, Secret Agent Eve Adams plays that role, but things are kind of diminished ’cause she’s an amnesiac blank slate.

On top of that, Eve’s life proves ridiculous even BEFORE she’s sent back in time to 1950’s movieville. This is a wasted opportunity, as the book would’ve been far more coherent if there was more of a contrast between the ‘normal’ world and the weirdo B-movie world of Atom Town. Instead, the book is a painful grind of “random humor” and slapstick, without much in the way of an actual plot. Eve just sort of grits her teeth and blunders through it all as she has to deal with various ‘whacky’ characters– first her superior, Agent D, and then a coffee-obsessed mad-scientist by the name of Dr. Adam.

While I’ve read some silly books in my time, the best ones were written by witty authors who knew the best way to turn a phrase. Nebel … doesn’t. For one, the book could probably have used an extra pass by the editor (there’s at least one instance of the word “new” being used instead of “knew”). On top of that, Nebel never met an exclamation point he didn’t like! Which means he uses one at least in every other paragraph! You can imagine how annoying this gets!

At the back of the book, Nebel gushes about how much he loves various cheesy sci-fi monster movies, the stuff regularly parodied on Mystery Science Theater 3000. And I get it, I dig MST3K too. But again, the most glorious of incompetently produced works are produced with a sense of earnestness, as opposed to a campy winking at the camera.

Atom Town, Book One: It Came From 1958! shouldn’t be a novel. Between the zany, slapstick humor, the cheesy B-movie plot, and the sheer cartoonishness of the action (characters are continually doing the Mary Poppins/Clown Car/TARDIS thing where they pull impossible things out of small bags or suitcases), Nebel’s story would be a much better fit for a more visual medium. It’d make for a decent enough comic book a-la The Tick. Or heck, with the right animation and timing, Atom Town would fit right in Adult Swim’s 2am time slot.

The problem with reading a crappy book is that it kind of sours you on reading in general. I don’t like leaving books unfinished (though I will, if I need to), but at the same time, reading something you don’t enjoy gets to be a real grind, real quickly. Thankfully, I’ve managed to get past Atom Town, so hopefully I’ll get back to my normal love of reading before I get flooded in again.

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1 Comment

  1. Alas, It Came From 1958! is such a great subtitle too! Glad you didn’t get washed away in the floods.

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