I’ve heard good things about Chuck Wendig, and I do enjoy his blog quite a bit, but I’d been reluctant to try his fiction. It sounded a bit more gruesome and, er, intense than what I usually like to read. But when I read his Big Idea post on Scalzi’s website, I knew I at least had to check this one out. I mean, cornpunk? Come on.
In Mr. Wendig’s words, the idea for this book started out as a joke:
“I blog five days out of seven at terribleminds and sometimes the blog posts come easily and other times they come like I’m trying to perform a root canal on a velociraptor and one of the times the blog post came easy was one where I talked about – and asked people to submit their own – SomethingPunk derivatives. You got cyberpunk, dieselpunk, bugpunk, and so forth, and I thought it’d be a whole sack of hoots for folks to invent their own silly SomethingPunk subgenres.
One of my suggestions was “cornpunk.”
The yaddayaddapunks generally posit a world essentially fueled by the yaddayaddathing, right? Everything runs on steam in steampunk, cyberpunk shows a world ineluctably married to futuristic corporate computer culture, and splatterpunk reveals a future where everything is based on an economical ecosystem of gore and viscera. (Okay, I might have that last one wrong.) If you were to assign our current day and age a Somethingpunk name, you might think of it as “Oil-and-Cheeseburger-Punk,” but that really doesn’t have a ring. But. But! Everything is also based on corn. I think with a few knob twists and lever pulls, you could crank that up and offer up a crazy moonbat podunk dystopian future-present where all of Western Civilization is powered by corn and corn-derivatives. It’s all silos and cornfields and giant mega-tractor-threshers and it’ll be all “Great Depression II: Sadness Boogaloo.” And fuck me if this didn’t start out as a joke but now sounds completely compelling. I call dibs! I call dibs on cornpunk! And niblets, too! Corn niblets! I call dibs on corn niblets because they are delicious!“
Well, I was pretty much done for after reading that. Even if I didn’t end up loving the book, he’d piqued my interest enough that I pretty much needed to read it right away. I didn’t end up loving it, but I still think it was worth it.
Here are my main thoughts about Under the Empyrean Sky:
1. For most of the book, the story falls victim to the standard YA dystopian plot arc. If you’ve read any amount of YA at all, you can probably guess where most of this is going. This mostly applies only to the worldbuilding.
2. HOWEVER. That standard YA worldbuilding is almost entirely covered with a thin layer of Wendig’s own special brand of whatever it is he’s got going on in his head. The cornpunk thing was by turns mind numbing, intriguing, and horrifying. He’s created a nightmare world out of Americana: farmland, corn, the Heartland . . . they’re all cursed in this book, and it’s bleak as fuck. It actually reminds me strongly of a dystopian version of The Grapes of Wrath.
3. Relatedly, one of the reasons I wasn’t feeling this book in the beginning is that it did remind me so strongly of The Grapes of Wrath, a book which I do not like. In fact, for whatever reason, I really can’t stand books or movies that are set in and around the dustbowl and the Great Depression. I hate them. So that definitely affected my reading of this book.
4. Though it was well-written, and the characters were three dimensional and interesting, I didn’t actually like any of them, so it wasn’t really that fun to read about them.
5. The ending really picked up and once a certain thing happened, I was interested in seeing where else Wendig would take his story, now that he’s got the intro bits taken care of.
All in all, worth checking out even if it wasn’t necessarily my thing — it’s DEFINITELY better than most of the YA shit that gets published these days. And who knows, maybe someday I’ll be brave enough to try some of Wendig’s adult fare. Although I doubt it. In her review of Double Dead, my Goodreads friend SJ strongly implied that one might need brain bleach while reading, and the need for brain bleach is a pretty strong deterrent (I don’t really like zombie books, either). Anyway, Wendig seems cool, even if his books give me nightmares, even his YA ones (seriously, guys, corn everywhere like a virus, people going sterile and getting tumors all over the place . . . gag).