8-Bit Apocalypse by Amanda Billings
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Jimmy is a loser. Stuck in a dead-end job at Chuck E. Cheese, he constantly listens to whisper videos on his phone to soothe his crippling social anxiety while he cleans vomit out of the play tubes. Then the apocalypse happens. A giant mutated Atari cartridge begins attacking Denver by bringing classic games to life, such as Centipede, Frogger, and Space Invaders (although “E.T.” is absent because that game was so horrible that the cartridge would likely self-destruct; seriously, it’s a cancer!). Now it’s up to Jimmy, who is the only one who has figured out what’s going on and knows how to play the games in order to stop the apocalypse.
This is the story behind 8-Bit Apocalypse by Amanda Billings, part of this year’s New Bizarro Authors Series. This is always a fun series and I look forward to it every year because it brings us new and experimental voices in fiction, and it’s always interesting to see what stories new authors can come up with and how they choose to tell those stories.
In 8-Bit Apocalypse, Jimmy is a very flawed but identifiable character. The reader can easily feel sorry for him and can root for him, although at times one might feel like they want to reach into the page and slap some sense into him. In that case, the novella length of this book is probably a good thing, as a character like Jimmy would have a very difficult time carrying a full-length novel. Most of the other characters are fairly two-dimensional and tend to simply stand there taking video of the events with their phones, but they don’t need more characterization for the purposes of the story. This is Jimmy’s story, and the other characters are there merely to give something for Jimmy to play off of.
The story is decent, if a a bit inconsistent. The action tends to get a little jerky and doesn’t have the smoothest of flows, but then again most of the action takes place within living Atari games, so this smoothness is relative. The ending seems very anticlimactic at first glance. But when one thinks about it (and it’s also explained within the text), it’s actually the most appropriate ending one can be given with this kind of a story and its theme.
I know that 8-bit anything is trendy right now, but it has a soft spot in my heart because I grew up in the age of Atari. Those games were simple yet had a certain elegance that stuck with the players and are remembered fondly to this day. 8-Bit Apocalypse is similar. The characters aren’t complicated, and neither is the plot (there’s not really any mystery or anything unanswered), and even seems a little by-the-book. At the same time, this gives the book a simple elegance that manages to stick with the reader for a while after they finish. Whether this will still be remembered fondly 30 years from now like the Atari games referenced within remains to be seen. But the book is simple yet satisfying in its own way, providing a solid story and characters that provide a modern literary look down an electronic memory lane.
8-Bit Apocalypse earns 3.5 whisper videos out of 5.