I was going to do an in-depth examination of the joys of being ill this weekend (probably food poisoning, could have been a stomach bug) but it’s now occurring to me that illness is one of those things that’s of profound interest to the person going through it, but nearly impossible to make interesting to other people. Like pain or dreams. There’s only so many times and ways you can say “It hurts, it hurts so bad” before the person you’re talking to can only roll their eyes and reply “Yes, you mentioned that.” Or so I’ve gleaned from paramedics. Not this weekend, that was another thing, and… yeah. Anyway.
So instead, let me tell you about Jam by Yahtzee Crowshaw, because telling people about it one by one is getting tiring.
The second novel from Yahtzee, best known for his Zero Punctuation game reviews, is best summarized by its opening sentence: “I woke up one morning to find that the city had been covered by a three-foot layer of man-eating jam.”
Strawberry, to be precise.
Set in Yahtzee’s current hometown of Brisbane, Australia, the novel finds several people trying to stay alive in the middle of what’s known as a “grey goo” apocalypse: an end-of-world scenario in which, in the example it’s named for, tiny nanobots are released that break down everything they encounter into more nano-bots, and the world is reduced to a sea of grey nano-bot goo. In this case, it’s a sea of what certainly appears to be strawberry jam, save for the way it instantly consumes any and all organic material it encounters and its ability to extend tendrils in order to snag any such material that’s just out of reach.
Our protagonist and narrator is the meek, timid and easily persuaded Travis. Travis joins with his roommate Tim and neighbours Angela and Don to try and find a way to avoid starvation and jammy death. (Not gonna lie, half the fun of writing this is using phrases like “jammy death.” “Jammy” is a fun adjective and I’m not sorry.) And in this cast, we begin to see the satire that fuels this engaging, thrilling, and frequently amusing apocalypse.
Tropes vs. Yahtzee
Yahtzee’s been reviewing video games and dwelling on the internet for years, and there are clearly some character archetypes he is out to take the piss out of. And he does it majestically. Tim is the guy who’s a little too excited to see society end so he can build a new one from its ashes. Or jammy residue, as the case may be. Don is his opposite number, driven to extreme lengths to find and protect the video game he’s been designing, because he refuses to accept that the world as he knew it may be gone. Angela is the would-be journalist, out to prove that someone caused all this, even if there’s no one left to prove it to. And none of these tropes are as hard-hit as those of X and Y, the American military personnel who seem to know more than they let on about the jam.
That’s downplaying it. I’d guess that of all the end-of-world, sinister-conspiracy cliches Yahtzee’s been encountering over the years, the one he’s the most sick of is the people pretending not to know anything even though every single thing they do is screaming out “They’re behind this, they know all!” And that is cranked up to maximum with X (called that because she won’t even reveal her name, yet insists she’s trustworthy). Every step she takes, every conversation she has cries out to everyone around her that she knows what the jam is, and where it came from, but each time she’s confronted, she lapses into the same, unconvincing press-agent routine denying any special knowledge. Which causes entertaining friction with truth-seeking Angela.
And yet more than tropes
But what makes this a great read is that, while mocking their tropes, Yahtzee still makes everyone a real character. There are real human motivations at their cores, even X. It keeps their struggles entertaining, keeps you rooting for them to stay alive, when they could have just become parodies we’re waiting to see die in the jammy depths.
On the other hand, we have the plastic people. A religious cult based out of a mall that worship “Crazy Bob” and sacrifice people to the jam for failing him. But it’s okay, because they’re doing it ironically.
Tropes get satirized in this book, but the notion of “doing it ironically” really takes it in the shorts. Yahtzee holds this concept down and beats it until his knuckles break. X and Y are set up to be the least trustworthy characters in the book, and they still look like saints next to Lord Awesomo of the plastic people. But I suspect they’re meant to, because he’s one of the book’s real villains.
Wrap it up
It’s a fun, engaging book. It takes a silly situation (JAMMY DOOM), treats it seriously (millions have died and the survivors’ chances are bleak), but saves room for satire. You should get yourself a copy (Amazon appears to be stocked) so that we can actually discuss it rather than me just saying “Hey! You there! Read Jam!”
That had to be more entertaining than hearing me describe why I know it was illness and not a hangover, no matter what my mother first assumed. Right?