The publicity materials for Paul Kane’s Sleeper(s) (Crystal Lake Publishing; 184 pgs.; $9.99) compares this short novel to work by John Wyndham and Nigel Kneale, two highly-regarded authors of classic UK-based disaster fiction. And the allusions don’t stop there — Kane name-checks both Wyndham and Kneale in the text, and events take place in the village of Middletown, which certainly seems to be a play on Wyndham’s Midwich (from The Midwich Cuckoos).
All of this tends to raise one’s expectations a bit — it did for me, at least — and although Sleeper(s) is certainly lean and fast-paced, it ultimately feels a little too formulaic for me to pronounce it to be up to the standards of Messrs. Kneale and Wyndham. Following the Prologue, the story begins with an ominous first line:
“The disorder presented itself as a mild form of fatigue at first.”
From fatigue, the fast-spreading illness quickly escalates to a sort of sudden-onset narcolepsy, to put it mildly. Before you can say “sweet dreams,” the entire town of Middletown has fallen into apparent comas. The town is quickly quarantined and Dr. Andrew Strauss, a brilliant scientist, is called in by the government to lead the investigation into the affliction. Strauss is an eccentric character who, it turns out, has been dreaming for years of a specific woman, who’s suddenly telling him (in his dreams) that “it’s time…come quickly!” The good doctor is quickly convinced that the woman of his dreams awaits him somewhere among the sleepers. Strauss is accompanied by his assistant, Bridget Clarke, who has an obsession of her own — namely Strauss himself.
Attempting to direct Strauss is a cadre of American and British military brass, with UK Major Radford acting as the strung-too-tight wildcard, although his fellow high-ranking officers General Fitzpatrick and Colonel Huxley (the latter being leader of the U.S. forces) are no day at the beach, either.
But all is not as it seems with the dozing villagers of Middletown. When the expedition team ventures into the land of Nod, they discover that the sleepers, who are now covered with a cobwebby substance, are capable of waking. But when they awake, they show no signs of the individuals they were previously, instead moving like mindless meat puppets controlled by a hive mind.
That sense of a “by-the-numbers” approach that I mentioned earlier applies at times to both plot and character development, as virtually every event is designed to drive the plot forward, with little to no time for subplots, red herrings or the like; and several of the characters seeming rather flimsy and stereotyped — like the aforementioned Major Radford, whose general theatrics and love of war seem over-the-top, and British soldier Timms, whose hatred of the U.S. in general, and one American soldier in particular, likewise feels forced.
Sleeper(s) features wonderful cover art by Ben Baldwin and a nicely-crafted Introduction by David Moody, who closes with this:
“Read Sleeper(s), then ask yourself, do I have as much control over my life as I think I do? Are you really your own master, or are you just a pawn.”
Personally, I’ve read other work by Kane that I’ve enjoyed more than Sleeper(s), but if you’re a fan of fast-paced disaster fiction, this novel may well be a good choice for you. It’s not a winner in the way of Wyndham, but you could call it a near-miss kneeling at the altar of Kneale.