My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Muir Woods or Bust is a gonzo-esque romp through the near future. More hopeful and humorous than its dystopian cousins, it is like an On the Road for gamers and Science Fiction nerds. I had a little trouble suspending disbelief in the road-trip plot, at first. Even in context it seemed like something out of an earlier time, as if two aging losers–one of them a widely recognizable former TV star–would really be able to get away with all this with zero negative consequences. Still, once it got going, the action and the colorful characters that they encountered kept me turning the (virtual eBook) pages. As the trip unfolded, I also stopped viewing Gil and Doyle as aging losers, which was, of course, the point.
In fact I would have preferred that the road trip started a bit sooner. This novel is one of several that I’ve read lately that uses a book-within-a-book device, and what I’ve learned from that reading is that this device should be used sparingly, if at all. Like the perennial “writing about writing,” it limits your audience and can easily throw the reader out of the story. Here, the author pulls it off reasonably well, only occasionally overdoes it, and although things take a while to get going, he manages to slip the reader some interesting backstory about John Muir in the process. He also balances his writing about Gil’s Muir book with writing about Doyle’s old TV show, Yosemite Yahoos, and Chum’s video game, Phantom Vampire, and all three of these media adventures play a significant role in the plot and themes.
I was also happy to read female characters who were not just there to be hit on by our madcap road-tripping dude protagonists. Gil’s messy relationship with his late wife Melody, and his grief and attempts at healing, are poignantly rendered; as is Chum’s rudderlessness in the wake of his mother’s death. Less successful was the character of Amanda, an unstable and burned out graduate student whose skeevy ex-boyfriend—conveniently for our heroes–just happens to be a tech billionaire. Still, the author demonstrates enough sensitivity for what woman entrepreneurs and creators face in the tech world to make her a sympathetic, multi-dimensional character.
The book ends in California, my adopted home, and while the state’s portrayal is an exaggeration like everything else in this story, I recognized it as a place of reckoning, where environmental beauty and human creativity come together in a crazy but wonderful mix. It surprised me how much I had come to care about and even like these characters. And when it was over, like Gil, I felt hopeful that “we’ll find a way,” as a species, to deal with whatever gets thrown at us. After all, what choice do we have?