The blurbs for this book promise serious science-fiction comedy in the vein of Douglas Adams and Kurt Vonnegut, and while Jay Martel generally does his literary influences justice, Channel Blue lacks the precise combination and balance of subtlety and absurdity that makes his predecessors so successful and enduring. From its main character (a middle-aged has-been screw-up) and plot (the Earth is soon to be destroyed by aliens who no longer have a use for it) to its primary satirical targets (reality television and the gleeful schadenfreude it engenders), the book relies too heavily on clichés to make a significant impact. Martel's good instincts are overwhelmed by his tendency toward heavy-handedness, and he doesn't often display the kind of restraint that this type of bitter, biting satire requires. Many potentially funny plot points, supporting characters, and odd encounters fall victim to his earnestness, though it is to the author's credit that the book never becomes overly preachy and remains an enjoyable experience for the duration. Still, for all of its bright moments (make no mistake, I did laugh out loud several times while reading the book), one gets the impression that Martel tries just a bit too hard to make his points for the majority of them to effectively resonate with readers.
The result of Martel's eagerness is a book whose tone and humor are uneven, helped little by largely unoriginal nuts and bolts elements. While the Earth-as-reality-television conceit is a clever one, the plot and characters suffer from a surprising lack of imagination and development. Despite a few unexpected twists and turns in the details, none of the narrative developments are particularly surprising, to the point of feeling repetitive and contrived. The book's most shocking- and, perhaps not coincidentally, its most interesting- revelation is placed too close to its end for its ramifications to be satisfactorily explored in either a serious or silly context. This isn't the kind of book that I would necessarily expect to be heavy on the moral implications of its satire, but I can't help but feel as though Martel undersells his abilities and ignores numerous opportunities to add depth and meaning to the book's humor, which rests instead primarily on the surface. Channel Blue offers quite a bit of food for thought, but doesn't allow readers ample space in which to consider the questions it poses, opting instead for the easier route time and again.
While it is fair to say that I was somewhat disappointed with the book, I should reiterate that it, like other books that may fail to fully explore and exploit their inherent potential, still provides an enjoyable reading experience. The characters would have benefited from more actual development, rather than a constant barrage of untenable events that drags them kicking and screaming into change, and the plot lacks moments of true tension, but both are serviceable. Martel's prose is easily digestible and, indeed, sometimes very funny. The book contains enough food for thought to sustain readers' interest even in its duller moments, though the rewards are slim in the end. Channel Blue may not be a truly worthy successor to the sci-fi comedians of yore, but it is sufficiently capable at eliciting a few laughs; it is, indeed, mostly harmless.