OCTO by Z. Albert Bell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
While definitely not perfect, let me go ahead and recommend that you not google this story and just start reading blindly. Much of the value in this rationalist sci-fi horror story comes from not knowing what will happen next, so if you consider a 4 star review from me sufficient to entice you to read a rationalist sci-fi horror story, then do so now. Spoilers are ahead.
With that said, Zeno Albert Bell is in desperate need of a professional editor. It seems that every idea they’ve come up with has made it into the text, and I don’t just mean this in terms of word choice. Still, the ideas themselves are great, reminiscent at first of Hal Clement-style Needle aliens, but done in a rational hard-sci-fi way. The end result is (and the spoilers start to get heavy here, so stop reading this and go read the book if you’re going to at all) lovecraftiam kaiju hard sci-fi, and that is legitimately hard to do.
Octo is not my favorite story, but its level of uniqueness and excellent presentation make up for the authors seeming unwillingness to edit the story into something half as long with a much tighter narrative arc, with the end result being a hearty recommendation from me. But I may be being too hasty: it's not entirely clear to me, but there is the distinct possibility that the author Bell is trying to make a meta narrative here: the protagonist’s view on patience may be a commentary on the readers' views on patience. Without getting too spoilery, the protagonist is willing to wait, but the text itself does not: as you read at the top of your screen, you start to notice text moving lower down, where you haven't gotten to yet. Later in the book, you start to notice that text is disappearing, or moving away from you, or changing before your very eyes. There starts to be a race between your ability to read and the text's ability to change. Bell is careful to allow you to reset if you refresh the page, so you never really miss out on anything, but there's clearly something going on with rewarding impatient readers more and more — until the final couple of chapters, when everything flips, and suddenly you start to miss out on text if you go too fast. The final chapter really underlines this: after reading, you have to wait several moments if you want to see the last parts of the book.
I'm fascinated by the idea that the connections between what the text itself rewards readers for doing has such consonance with what the protagonist clearly prefers. The points of views of humans are so fast in comparison, and when you get the point of view of a feline, you can just feel the irritation of wanting to go even faster. These points of view at the character level match that of the trained reader, and this makes the alienness of the protagonist even more stark.
And this is why I'm not quite sure of what I said earlier about the author needing a professional editor. This theme of patience — of rushing and not rushing and being rewarded at different times for different things while the characters themselves see reality at different rates — this is echoed and subverted continuously at the literary level by the author including unkilled darlings that the reader dare not fast forward through. I'm not going to claim that this is necessarily intentional; as Plato pointed out in The Republic, many poets will write poetry that has qualities the authors themselves do not always see. But regardless of its intentionality, there is a direct parallel between the unlocking of the library and the written inclusion of scenes that can’t be skipped. The animal scenes are great — be sure to hover over every “meow” — but their inclusion doesn’t have a payoff in future chapters. In any other book, this content would be cut. As great as these ideas are, any author would cut them and put them into a different short story, rather than keep them in Octo. The fact that this author does not cut them is what gives me pause. Is this intentional? Are we including fun and well written chapters that really should be cut on purpose? Is this a commentary on patience, making the reader deliberately have to wait?
I don't know. Maybe the author is just a beginning author and doesn't realize that you can cut great ideas like this and incorporate them into their own short stories, separate from this book. Maybe they have yet to realize that great writing requires major amounts of cutting. But maybe the author is playing a level above me, and these chapters are here on purpose to show you what it means for the protagonist to be okay with waiting. This story has a lot to do with alien thinking, and this might be yet another way to make the reader feel like they are reading about an alien. Seeing events from the points of view of a canine or feline feels alien. That the cat wants to rush through the situation, wants you to skip text and dialogue that you can, if you slow down, also read, has a distinctly alien feel. And that the entire sequence is just dressing, a side story, not relevant to the ongoing plot, feels even more alien still. Maybe I shouldn't give the author credit for this, but including sub-par editorial parts felt almost right to me. It was irritating, but they were well written and entertaining. It felt like reading small short stories occasionally right in the middle of the book. It felt appropriately alien.
With that said, the pacing and narrative structure was terrible due their inclusion. The writing goes through successive sections that are fast and slow, with no regard to what the narrative arc demands. If a movie were made this way, people would walk out. As it is, I imagine most readers may opt out. But if you struggle through — if you are okay with seeing an action scene pause mid-scene while you watch a short entertaining commercial before the action resumes — then you will enjoy Octo. It genuinely puts you into a place where you can start to appreciate something so incomprehensibly alien.
I also want to give a shout-out to that great ending. The IRL aliens take pity and expend resources on letting the instanced beings play out their story, but it’s not at all clear whether the simulation will do anything to help them solve their library problems. I personally read it as a tragedy: this simulation won’t have the humans attack the library, and so can’t possibly show how the humans in the real world destroyed it — but I can also see how someone else might think that the lateral thinking nature of how upraised humans think might be sufficient to help solve the problem of fixing the library without the simulation ever giving rise to the specific acts that humans used the first time around. Either way, the ending is great, because we don’t care: the story follows the protagonists of the simulation, reminding us of who we the readers should truly be concerned with.
I eagerly look forward to Z Albert Bell's next project. Just, please, Bell, if you're reading this: do consider using an editor to help you parse your overly creative brain’s ideas down to what is needed for the story’s own purposes. You can always use the cut ideas in even more stories, you know!
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