It’s twenty years into the future and another pandemic has swept the globe. A decade before, waves of people suddenly found themselves inexplicably unable to fall asleep. By the time we meet journalist Jamie Vega, the Sleepless population has plateaued. The extremists who advocated for imprisonment or execution of the Sleepless out of concern for resource usage or plain old fear and bigotry have given way to supremacists who view themselves as the next stage in human evolution and want to see the entire world made Sleepless.
In the middle of all this, Jamie walks into work one morning to find his mercurial boss, Simon, dead. Jamie is immediately suspicious. At first the cops rule the death a suicide, but it soon becomes obvious to them and Jamie that something more sinister went down the night before and Jamie is somehow involved. Trouble is, he can’t remember how. Jamie is newly Sleepless, and suspects his condition has something to do with his memory loss. The more he picks at the loose threads Simon left behind, the more he gets tangled up in corporate conspiracies, science run amok, and fascist terrorists dreaming of capitalist domination.
The Sleepless is one of those novels whose cover copy does it little favor. I went into it expecting a science fiction dystopian thriller, and it’s not that. It’s a great book, but it leans far more toward contemplative and introspective than action-packed whodunit. If Manibo had gone the route of standard futuristic action mystery, the book would have been fine if uncreative. But I loved the track he chose which lets the reader and Jamie really sit with his choices and the consequences. Cleverly, he resists the urge to establish Jamie as a hero. There are bad guys for sure—particularly the extremists who want to eradicate sleep to fuel their supremacist and corporate overlord desires—but most of the cast are flawed people making choices they hope are the right ones even if they aren’t good ones.
Manibo is more focused on the journey the story takes, both backwards and forwards, rather than the destination, and one unfortunate side effect is that the resolution is tidy but not fully satisfying. The story could stand to push Jamie a little more, and the ending could have used a sharper edge to make the theme really land. In general, the ending hits all the marks even as it heads exactly where the reader expects. For a book all about world-shaking revelations and deep self-discovery, I expected one last sharp bite. instead Manibo opted for easy, quiet closure.
Jamie spends much of the novel recounting past events, global and personal, that lead him to the difficult position he’s in now. I’m wholly uninterested in demanding all authors adhere to the old craft adage of “show, don’t tell,” largely because I think it’s a very Western way of approaching storytelling. However, I will say that it might have helped if some of the other characters discussed the background information instead of nearly all of it coming from Jamie’s internal first person narration. All that backstory is crucial to plot and character development, and although the delivery method isn’t always exciting, the content is.
Jamie’s world is eerily similar to ours now, one where a pandemic has gotten its claws into the populace but because things are stable, everyone has just decided that there are going to be people who get sick and there’s nothing we can do. The increase in human activity is exacerbating already challenging environmental and climate issues, as the Sleepless keep busy with entertainment and employment through their extra waking hours. Productivity soars, and so do corporate profits.
This is where the meat of Manibo’s story lies, for this is not so much a whodunit as a treatise on capitalism’s disastrous grip on the American soul. It is tempting to think that if I became Sleepless I would spend it relaxing and being with my family, but eventually I’d probably end up doing what most of the characters in The Sleepless do: work more. The lure of making more money and having more options coupled with the Western urge to be a productive member of society win out over frivolity and mutual aid in Manibo’s novel. It is more of who we already are, but that does not mean we cannot become something else. That Manibo uses a queer Filipino American main character as his tool for this discussion is not only welcome representation but a brilliant bit of incisive critique of colonialism and Western ideologies.
For a book about a pandemic, The Sleepless could have wallowed in misery or dystopia, yet Manibo opts for reflection and compassion. It pushes back against the pervasive idea that the future is unchangeable, that we are trapped on a path to chaos and exploitation. Jamie wants to believe there is more to our lives than being corporate drones as the world burns around us. Erewhon Books is one of those publishers whose catalogue I always pay close attention to. They’ve been putting out some great hits lately, and Victor Manibo’s novel is near the top.
The Sleepless is published by Erewhon Books.
Alex Brown is a Hugo-nominated and Ignyte award-winning critic who writes about speculative fiction, librarianship, and Black history. Find them on twitter (@QueenOfRats), instagram (@bookjockeyalex), and their blog (bookjockeyalex.com).