Stamping Butterflies by Jon Courtenay Grimwood
I picked up John Courtenay Grimwood’s Stamping Butterflies because Marion thinks so highly of his work and I thought a stand-alone novel which has just been released in audio format would be an ideal introduction to the author. While I found much to admire about Grimwood’s style, I didn’t enjoy Stamping Butterflies as much as I expect to enjoy some of his other work.
The non-linear three-pronged plot of Stamping Butterflies is ambitious. One part takes place in modern-day United States where Gene Newman, the charismatic U.S. President, refuses to collaborate on a space mission with the Chinese until their government addresses its human rights issues. A sniper, concerned about a Chinese-American partnership, attempts to kill Newman in Marrakech and is caught and sentenced to death. He dreams of a future Chinese emperor and the “darkness” that influences both of them. He’s a genius with mathematics, quantum physics, and theology, so keeping him alive may be the best thing for the U.S. government — if they can get him to talk.
A second plot is set in Marrakech in the 1960s and 1970s. Here, as we explore the city with a couple of teenage street urchins and a rock star named Jake Razor, we relive some of Prisoner Zero’s past and begin to understand how he became a killer. The third part of the plot is set in the far future where, generations before, a Chinese space mission managed to set up an emperor and a computer to rule the future 2023 worlds. The current emperor, whose every move is broadcast live across his bored kingdom, dreams of Prisoner Zero as he waits for his own assassin and wonders which of his surroundings are real and which are computer-generated.
The story seems to jump around almost randomly between these three plot lines. Each has a different flavor — the modern plot feels like a political thriller, the past plot feels like historical fiction, and the future plot feels like cyberpunk. Underneath each lurks the same shadowy organizing principle which the characters refer to as “the darkness”, “the cold”, or “the library.”
I admire the vision, style, and structure of Stamping Butterflies. The characterization is quite good (though I didn’t particularly like the characters) and the places Grimwood takes us come alive. I think I could smell the streets and the food stalls of Marrakech. There is also some awesome scenery, some really cool math and science, and a ride in a racing space yacht called All Tomorrow’s Parties — a nod to William Gibson’s novel which has a similar convoluted structure and is also about a haunted man who can sense eminent world-changing events.
As with Gibson’s novel, I couldn’t manage to get immersed in Stamping Butterflies. Its chapters are presented as random pieces of a puzzle that don’t all fit together until the end (and even then, I’m not sure how snugly they fit), so there’s a constant sense of being lost or not having enough information to be able to just relax and enjoy the story. By the time it all came together (sort of), it was too late. At that point all I could do was sit back and admire the idea and wish I had been more fully engaged much earlier. I’m sure a re-read would be enlightening, but I didn’t like the story well enough to do that. I did, however, really like Grimwood’s style and look forward to reading more of his work.
I listened to Audible Frontier’s version of Stamping Butterflies which was read by Noah James Butler. Butler has a nice voice for narration and he mostly gives a good reading. However, the voices he used for some of the characters’ dialogue were unpleasant (especially for female characters) and there were several obvious places where Butler must have made a mistake and a patch was dubbed in. This wasn’t enough to keep me from recommending the audio version of this book, but it wasn’t up to the excellent quality I expect from Audible Frontiers.
Grimwood is trying to do some kind of unifying theme with this book, End of the World Blues (which also has a futuristic element) and 9-Tailed Fox, but I’ll be darned if I know what it is.