Is Our Writers Learning: The Placebo Effect

Continuing my ongoing plan to read something current every month and see what I learn. This month (technically March’s book as I’m behind) we have The Placebo Effect by David Rotenberg. Which mostly taught me it’s still possible to get a crappy book published, but I’ll get to that.
The concept: The protagonist, Decker Roberts, is a synesthete, someone whose senses are cross-wired (smelling colors, hearing smells, that sort of thing). This rationalizes a rather flimsy explanation (but I’d be okay with it if I’d liked the book) for why he’s a human lie-detector: He gets a visual sign when people are lying. This draws the attention of both a crooked CEO and the NSA; however the CEO also believes Roberts has learned about his plan to mix in placebos with shipments of his new drug to cut costs, and orders him killed. Can Roberts survive? Can he get both parties off his back?
What I learned:
•The mainstream SF/fantasy novel is still out there, and probably not exploited very much. I’m thinking of the kind of book that has genre elements and arguably qualifies as a genre book, but it’s pitched at the mainstream and written accordingly. Michael Crichton is the best known example but there’s also Karen Hall’s supernatural thriller Dark Debts, Dale Brown’s Tin Man, and Steve Englehart’s Point Man (though that one came out as a fantasy, it has many of the same trappings). There’s a lot of emphasis in most such books on grounding it in the real world (Placebo Effect has lots of name-brand references), making the science or magic look and sound plausible (more than I think genre-targeted books bother with) and a difference in style I can’t quite pin down but it’s definitely there (okay, definitely IMHO).
•Not that it’s news but the blurbs on the cover are often not objective. I’ve read several articles over the years discussing how certain writers always give each other’s books, or their publisher’s other hot reads, glowing blurbs whether or not they’re deserved. Checking over the blurbs after I finished the book, I noticed almost none of the ones for the book came from reviewers or writers, instead it was actors and directors (Rotenberg is a director himself) so I’m suspecting he called in a few friends to say nice things (in fairness, they may be completely sincere).
•Tension and suspense matter, which this book shows by not having any. Roberts seems to wander around, moderately irked by everything that’s going on, but rarely panicked. And not because he’s that steely-eyed, he just seems too bland to care. It’s a good example of How Not To Do it.
•And thereby, it shows bad books can still find a publisher (even conceding that badness is subjective and quite possibly vast numbers of people think this is the most amazing novel ever). But this, of course is a useless lesson. In the first place, I prefer to write assuming Murphy’s Law applies and anything wrong with my work will get flagged and trigger a rejection. The fact some writers manage to have bad plots, clunky style, cardboard characters, sexist handling of women, long, tedious polemics or countless other flaws doesn’t mean I’ll be able to get away with the same.
And second, I don’t want to write a bad book. There’s no fun in creating something mediocre; I may have done it in the past, but certainly not by intent.
On the whole, nothing terribly enlightening. Possibly the next book will do better.


Filed under Is Our Writers Learning?, Reading, Writing

2 responses to “Is Our Writers Learning: The Placebo Effect

  1. Pingback: Is Our Writers Learning? Gideon’s Angel | Fraser Sherman's Blog

  2. Pingback: Is Our Writers Learning: The Condensed View | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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