Sunday, June 10, 2012

Review # 182: Strange Flesh - A Novel by Michael Olsen

"This is a story about SEX and GAMES."
     “The only clue we have to our brother’s whereabouts is this place that doesn’t really exist.” Ten years ago, Blythe Randall broke James Pryce’s heart. Now she needs his help. Her enigmatic appeal lures the elite hacker into his most tantalizing, and most personal, assignment yet. A Harvard dropout employed by Manhattan-based RedRook Security, James makes a living finding people who don’t want to be found, pursuing their digital tracks around the globe, flushing out criminals, and exacting creative high-tech revenge on behalf of his clients. But this time he’s following his target—billionaire multimedia artist Billy Randall—into an exotic and treacherous world: a virtual one. 
     Capping off an erratic, increasingly violent series of stunts meant to plague his family’s media empire, black sheep Billy sends a video of his own suicide to his older siblings, aristocratic twins Blythe and Blake. In it, Billy “jacks out,” reanimating onscreen as an avatar in a decadent online world called NOD. The performance is pure Billy—he has always been obsessed with “the Bleed”: the moment when real and virtual selves intersect, where actions in one life breed consequences in another. 
     Blythe uses her influence to install James at GAME, a downtown media collective and one of Billy’s recent haunts. Posing as a documentarian, James gains access to a small band of artists and programmers—contemporaries, and in some cases enemies, of Billy Randall—whose top secret project represents the holy grail of virtual reality. Meanwhile, James learns that as part of his most recent scheme, Billy himself has designed a lavish alternate reality game, an escalating, high-stakes virtual landscape of strange flesh. 
In order to find him, James must play along.


     When I started hearing about Strange Flesh from other reviewers, I knew that I wanted to get my hands on a copy, and Simon and Schuster was kind enough to send me an ARC. Others were equating it to 120 Days of Sodom, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Social Network, and Ready Player One, books I had thoroughly enjoyed; so I was definitely interested. Unfortunately, I felt that Strange Flesh was lacking many of the components the aforementioned books contained. Yes, the main character was hard to decipher, and technology (virtual reality, the internet, smartphones...) took a prominent role, but where was all the action? I find that most of the story is lost behind unnecessary definition and technical rigmarole; I do not know why Michael Olsen thinks it is obligatory to describe acts and processes that most people able to read the book would already understand, (sex, tech, etc...). I was not a fan of the characters either, they fell flat and evoked close to 0% sympathy from me. A character that started out with potential, James, just became a twisted mass of multiple personalities; from hacker to gunslinger within 200 pages. Do not even get me started on the female characters, because they were all stereo-typically objectified - there was not a strong female in the bunch - just women, sex, and games; the book's noted premise. Speaking of, why does every situation have to be laced with cheap twisted sex scenes? Most people expect a little well-developed heat in a book like this one, especially looking at the cover, but the graphic sexual content felt more prostrate and depraved than sexy and gratifying, most times wanton. Parts of the plot had redeeming qualities, but a book that takes 200+ pages to capture the readers attention will not excite readers. Maybe this book would be better as a hyped-up film, but it is definitely not bestselling novel material. I am not sure that I am comfortable recommending this book to others.

Rating: DNR (2/5)

*** I received this book from the author in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.

About the Author:

     Michael Olson, a Harvard graduate, worked in investment banking and software engineering before taking a master’s degree from NYU’s Interactive Technology Program, where he designed a locomotion interface for virtual environments.

Strange Flesh is his first novel. For more info visit: or email

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