What a great book.
Many Lopes is a lonely, miserable American working a government job in Korea. He hasn’t seen his wife in two years, and she finally gives up on their long-distance relationship and leaves him. Manny chose to work in Korea partly to experience another culture, but as a dark-skinned American he tends to be treated as either a celebrity of a freak by the locals, who are fascinated (and sometimes disgusted) by black people. To add to the list of things that make Manny feel like crap, he’s a puny 5 feet 3 inches tall – a “creole shrimp” as he suggests. But that’s about to change…
Also in Korea is Fred Isaacson, a particularly loopy religious fanatic who believes it is his personal mandate to pave the way for Yahweh’s return. Apparently the Lord has chosen the Korean people as the instruments of Armageddon, so Isaacson tries to sell them some experimental quantum technology – a “Little Big Bang” contained in a metal egg. But the deal goes wrong and results in several accidental quantum explosions – one of which turns poor diminutive Manny into a 6000-foot tall colossus. Manny is so massive he doesn’t even realise what’s happened. At his size (he’s far, far bigger than the figure on the cover), humans are microscopic and the landscape looks alien. For the people on the ground however, every one of Manny’s steps causes catastrophic damage. The army does everything they can, first to stop him, but then to use him as a weapon of mass destruction. Manny isn’t really susceptible to that kind of manipulation, but the Americans gain leverage over him when a second giant is discovered – a North Korean assassin.
Enormity surprised me. The giant-man plot sounds like something out of a dodgy old sci fi movie. I figured the only way to pull this off was as a parody, and the whacky blurb seems to suggest that that’s what it is. But while Enormity does have some wonderful bits of oddball humour and is pretty bizarre in general, it’s actually fairly serious. I have to admire W.G. Marshall for taking a pulpy idea and crafting a vividly written, multi-layered and compelling novel out of it.
There’s so much to appreciate here: a glimpse into Korean culture, loads of action, good pacing and plenty of well-crafted characters. The novel shows great depth of character in Manny in particular. He’s an instantly likeable, memorable and slightly tragic figure – a generally nice guy suffering feelings of loneliness and insignificance in a culture he’s trying to explore but that inevitably alienates him. Then he becomes the extreme physical opposite of the person he’s always been, giving him a sense of power he’s never experienced. However, his power also fills him with horror and remorse – he can barely move without causing death and destruction. At the same time, he’s even lonelier than before, since the rest of the human race might as well be an alien species to him. And he knows that he’s going to die soon, because he has no sustainable source of food. Thus, Manny’s unbelievable height gives his a new perspective on life, not only physically, but existentially.
For the reader, Manny’s size also means the novel is also really, really gross at times. The human body at that scale is fucking disgusting. What looks like a layer of dirty snow on Manny’s head turns out to be dandruff. When a military team sets up a communication base inside his ear, they secure the tent in “resinous brown outcroppings of earwax”. An open sore on his forehead is described as
“a crater about twenty feet across; a grisly sump overflowing with lava-like congealing blood. Steam-heat wafted from the hole as if from a volcanic vent. Thirty-foot-tall eyebrow hairs leaned splintered and smouldering away from the breech, and sticky blood cells had been blown everywhere by the wind, resembling gelatinous red condoms.”
And then there are the bacteria from Manny’s body, which are now more like giant flesh-eating bugs:
living jellied beads like masses of frog eggs, squirming and spreading infestation with busy, burrowing tendrils. Queen could see them splitting in two, multiplying as he watched, taking over the victims’ whole bodies like a sticky caul of tapioca. Hideous, flesh-eating tapioca.
The grossness, however, is a necessary part of the story’s speculation. Marshall’s giants are very realistic and it makes sense, therefore, to have giant bacteria and strands of hair as thick as tree trunks. There are other details as well. The increased size of Manny’s brain means that nerve impulses have further to travel and thus he experiences everything much more slowly. To speak to him, speech has to be slowed down and transmitted at a low frequency; if not, it will just sound like indecipherable twittering to him. And of course the book details the catastrophic destruction Manny causes: the air around his moving body is like a powerful storm; the reverberations of his voice can blow up the aircraft shooting at him; flakes of his skin are like shrapnel. It all serves to make the idea of this giant and the story as a whole very very real for the reader.
Some might ask about the technical issue according to which something that size should be crushed under its own weight, but the novel quietly dismisses this with the excuse that “that there’s something about their molecular structure that makes them incredibly robust— it’s as if they don’t quite follow the ordinary rules of physics”. Which is perfectly acceptable to me.
Equally plausible and yet almost as shocking as the existence of such a giant are Marshall’s speculations about the political reactions to it. From the very beginning the situation is complicated by questions of who is responsible, or more importantly, who will be blamed. Once the American military finds a way of communicating with Manny, the president and his cabinet immediately start thinking about how to use him to destroy all the countries and military bases that the USA considers a threat. And of course the North Korean giant is being used in a similar manner. The reader gets to explore some of the political and social turmoil between Koreans and the Japanese, within North Korea, and between America and rest of the world, all of which forms basis for way the giants are manipulated.
There are lots more little things I could talk about, but I wouldn’t want to spoil this book for anyone. I’d put it in the hands of any sci fi fan as quirky gem of top-quality genre fiction. Enormity is being released on 7 February by Night Shade Books. Get it.