The Future is (Nearly) Now: Science Fiction’s View of 2018

Recently on Facebook, noted UK science fiction author Adam Roberts tossed out this observation, in the typical shorthand lingo of social media: “My gut [feeling] is that [the science fiction] genre has been responding to contemp politics, me too, climate change etc more directly and effectively than mimetic fiction, but that may just be my personal bias.”

If Roberts’s sentiment is a personal bias, it’s one shared by almost every reader and writer and critic of SF. This facet of science fiction has been noted at least as far back as the 1950s, when Kingsley Amis praised the genre for its lonely pop-culture stance against McCarthyism. Since then, books such as John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar, Harry Harrison’s Make Room, Make Room!, Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream and Sheri Tepper’s The Gate to Women’s Country have displayed the powers inherent in the genre for grappling with hot-button themes.

The highwater mark recently for such encoded fictional responses to controversial and urgent issues might have occurred over the course of last year, 2017, which saw, in the first furious flush of reactions to the events of 2016, the publication of such engagée novels as Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway, Christopher Brown’s Tropic of Kansas, Norman Spinrad’s The People’s Police, Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140, and Annalee Newitz’s Autonomous. But if 2018 was not host to such a full spate of socially conscious SF books, it still featured many that had something to say about current events, no matter how ostensibly divorced from the present genre novels seem to be.

* * *

The omnipresent internet and its deleterious effects on everything from politics to commerce to interpersonal relationships seem almost to serve as the foundation for all our other concerns, a flawed universal tool that intermediates and interferes between us and our challenges. Addressing our current addiction to the internet and our desire to face real life only through a virtual scrim, Nick Clark Windo exhibits a masterly hand in his debut novel, The Feed, which strives to show us just how much worse things could be.

In his first chapter of only ten pages or so, Windo concisely and vividly depicts a near-term future where everyone is permanently, organically tapped into a kind of hyper-web dubbed the Feed. Not quite a Matrix-level artificial reality, the Feed nonetheless renders face-to-face physical interactions almost negligible. We witness this in the fraught dialogue between Kate and Tom, a married couple expecting their first child. Tom also happens to be the son of the Feed’s creator.

A quick jump six years forward, into a post-apocalyptic landscape. Every country on the planet has cratered, once the Feed mysteriously imploded, a result of anonymous saboteurs. Its collapse was literally terminal for the vast majority of its cyber-implanted users. Billions of bodies rotted where they fell. The rare survivors now live the precarious lives of scavengers amid the ruins. Tom and Kate are among that number, and their daughter Bea is now six, and knows no other existence.

So far, one might think, so conventional. Although even if this were indeed the whole scenario, one would still have to credit Windo for an achingly dire evocation of the hardscabble post-technological lifestyle. (“The candle’s greasy light flickers bronze shadows as he stands… The darkened mirror, florid with age, reflects only darkness. The room so cold, so quiet. The flies have all disappeared.”) But there is more.

Just prior to the Feed’s end, a strange phenomenon emerged: Users became possessed by new personalities, their old suite of memories and behaviors evicted. And these new personalities were often murderous. Now the plague continues. Even absent the Feed, a person can be displaced from their own head in an eyeblink. This means that the survivors live in a kind of paranoid surveillance state, always watching each other for signs of being hijacked. And if that happens, the customs say you must kill the victim to preserve the community.

In this fraught clime–which has an atmosphere reminiscent of Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet–Tom and Kate’s desperate search for stability and safety is upended when their daughter is kidnapped by a band of roving outlaws. They set out in search of her. But along the eccentric, dangerous way–many other deftly sketched communities and individuals are visited, not all friendly –tragedy overcomes Kate, and Tom learns the secret behind the psychic hijackings. It is not what anyone suspected, and the revelation forces Tom to accommodate his views to the reality of the hijackers. He finds himself in a position of power. Can a compromise between the survivors and the invaders result in a better world? Only if resilience and flexibility replace hatred and fear.

Along with the tender intimacies between Tom and Kate, and the picture of general sacrifice and privation, Windo’s depiction of a world where over-reliance on the parallel reality of a digital landscape has left the addicts ennervated and directionless speaks directly to 2018’s malaise. The surreal plot twists, evocative of those in The Gone World by Tom Sweterlitsch, serve as further derangements of a society already willingly surrendered up to unreason by greed and hubris.

* * *

Despite the contrary evidence adduced by Stephen Pinker and others, it sometimes seems that the current world is ablaze with war and other armed conflicts. As an Iraqi writer, Ahmed Saadawi has more cause to know this hard fact than many of us in more stable nations. And with his Frankenstein in Baghdad, he’s written a book that exquisitely balances esthetics and bloodshed. It’s a performance reminiscent somehow of the sniper-strafed public musical interludes of Vedran Smailović, “the Cellist of Sarajevo.”

The year is 2005. Car bombs go off every day in Baghdad, but people must still conduct their daily routines. We are introduced to our deliciously individualized main characters one by one, as well as a plethora of entertaining subsidiary folks. First is Hadi, the junk dealer. He has a small side project: sewing pieces of corpses together to memorialize the fallen. Then there’s Elishva, a dotty elderly widow waiting for the return of her son, Daniel, lost for twenty-plus years since the days of the Iraq-Iran war. When Hadi’s corpse-art is brought to life by the infusion of a dead man’s soul, and takes up residence there, with the overjoyed widow imagining he’s her returned son. Into the picture comes Mahmoud, a journalist and writer who is always looking for a hot story. As Daniel the monster–aka Whatsitsname–starts his revenge killing spree, Mahmoud will become his amanuensis of sorts. Finally we meet Brigadier Majid, head of the Tracking and Pursuit Department which is tasked with investigating Fortean-type occurences in the country.

Saadawi bops around in unhurried fashion among his cast, chapter by chapter, in a beguiling mix of whimsy, melancholy, philosophy and horror. (“[The] explosion…engulfed the vehicles and the bodies of the people around them. It cut electricity wires and killed birds. Windows were shattered and doors blown in. Cracks appeared in the walls of the nearby houses, and some old ceilings collapsed. There was unseen damage too, all inflicted in a single moment.”) There are Pynchonesque flourishes in the Brigadier’s attempts to chart supernatural occurences, a la Slothrop and the V2s. And there are Catch-22 moments illustrating the insanity of war.

       “I’d go further and say that all the security incidents and the tragedies we’re seeing stem from one thing—fear. The people on the bridge died because they were frightened of dying. Every day we’re dying from the same fear of dying. The groups that have given shelter and support to al-Qaeda have done so because they are frightened of another group, and this other group has created and mobilized militias to protect itself from al-Qaeda. It has created a death machine working in the other direction because it’s afraid of the Other. And we’re going to see more and more death because of fear.”

But the social commentary is counterbalanced by the loving attention to the quotidian lives of the citizens, in the manner of a novel by one of the great Latin American magical realists, such as Jorge Amado or Gabriel Garcia Marquez. And by the beautiful allegorical role of the monster. “They don’t understand that I’m the only justice there is in this country.” Although golem-like Daniel is a unique superhero of sorts, he shares the same instructive moral dilemma as all of us facing such situations.

       In his mind he still had a long list of the people he was supposed to kill, and as fast as the list shrank it was replenished with new names, making avenging these lives an endless task. Or maybe he would wake up one day to discover that there was no one left to kill, because the criminals and the victims were entangled in a way that was more complicated than ever before. “There are no innocents who are completely innocent or criminals who are completely criminal.”

* * *

Do you lament the coarsening of culture, the new lows reached every day in music, films, sports, fiction, and art? Are you suspicious of the integrity of large institutions? Do you feel that naked capitalism drives us to places where ethics take a back seat to profits? If so, John Scalzi has crystallized all your doubts, fears and suspicions into thriller form.

Scalzi’s premise in Head On takes off from his previous novel Lock In. In that near future, Haden’s syndrome impacted millions of victims, leaving them with absolutely inert bodies yet unafflicted minds. In his quasi-sequel, this special class of people inhabit “threeps,” android bodies they maneuver in the real world thanks to wireless neural-net connections, thus liberating themselves from their bedridden stasis.

This potent SF novum was first codified by Poul Anderson in his story “Call Me Joe.” It had a deft pop culture presentation in the form of Noman, a character from the 1960s T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents comic book. David Brin brought the trope back in 2002’s Kiln People, coincidentally just when Richard Morgan also deployed it, noir fashion, in Altered Carbon, where the bodies were dubbed “sleeves.” Finally, James Cameron made extensive use of the gimmick in Avatar.   Given this long literary exfoliation, Scalzi does not extend the potentials of the technology by much, but he does employ the trope effectively to propel his plot, especially in moments of wild body-hopping.

The Haden culture is dominated by a new sport named Hilketa, which appeals to the “normals” as well. It’s a kind of violent scrimmage where all the players are remote-based Hadens embedded in threeps, thus allowing for any kind of playing field carnage without true physical loss. Decapitation, in fact, is de rigueur. But during one game, a player is killed for real, the violence onfield transmitted back to the mortal body. A team of FBI agents are called in to solve the case. One is Chris Shane, whose own Haden status has him afield in various artificial avatars, which he frequently has the bad luck to destroy–a loss the bean-counters at the FBI frown on. His partner is Leslie Vann, one of the rare folks who contracted Haden’s but did not become disabled. Nonetheless, she has her own legacy from the disease.

In paradigmatic crime novel fashion, our protagonists delve into a number of milieus that allow Scalzi to give us a rounded glimpse of this future, from high places to low. Along with the sociopolitical illuminations, he does not neglect the interpersonal ones, showing us the full range of human folly, lust, honor and sacrifice. Shane’s touching adoption of cat named Donut both rounds out his portrait and also plays a pivotal part in the mystery.

Ultimately the villain is one that could have been plucked from today’s headlines. The novel ends with no real reforms or revolutions, just the installation of additional safeguards and the punishment of the guilty. In other words, an outcome truer to the real world than not. But along the way Scalzi has hinted at big changes.

       “Now that AK has opened up the market to non-Hadens, it’s just a matter of time before they start using [threeps]. Older people. Those with non-Haden mobility issues. Able-bodied people who want to travel to faraway destinations but can’t take the time or make the financial investment for a full vacation. There’s an explosion of threep use less than a decade out…”

The novel suggested by that passage is one that would have grappled with a fresh problem: the way tech-enabled living distances us in radically new ways from nature and our animal heritage.

* * *

Sometime not too far into the twentieth century, it became apparent that the best way to represent the chaos and madness of modern urban life was not naturalistically, but laterally, with the fantastical techniques of that new movement known as surrealism. Authors would concoct realms not in our past or future, but existing sideways from us. Paradoxically, only by such radical distortions and displacements could a clear picture of reality be obtained.

Charles Finney promptly gave us The Unholy City (1937), the tale of Heila Wey, through whose streets a giant tiger prowls. Thirty years later, the incomparable Ishmael Reed delivered The Free-Lance Pallbearers, a savage portrait of the land of Harry Sam. Ten years after that, Robert Coover’s The Public Burning held a funhouse mirror up to 1950s culture and politics. Next came a masterpiece of the mode: Gilliam’s Brazil. The Beerlight saga by Steve Aylett figures deeply in the progression.   Although strictly a post-apocalypse, Nick Harkaway’s The Gone-Away World displays a little of this vibe. And just last year, Jeff VanderMeer delivered Borne, another version of the Eternal Shattered Metropolis, whose giant flying bear surely shares genetics with Finney’s tiger from eighty years prior.

But the most perfect instance of this strategy is surely Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren (1975). No more beautiful, authentic and organic depiction of the laterally cognate city exists. And despite the otherness of Delany’s Bellona, the book brilliantly captures the endgame of the Age of Aquarius, as it was meant to do.

I suspect that Chandler Klang Smith knows all these literary landmarks and others as well, for her second novel, The Sky Is Yours, slots so neatly into the lineage–and carries forward the tradition so cunningly and enjoyably–that its existence could not have been the outcome of pure spontaneous reinvention.

Our venue is the half-deserted, half-ruined city known as Empire Island. Manhattan? London? Paris? Pieces of each? It hardly matters, for the distinctive place conjures up all such world-class burgs. The city had been struggling along pretty well until two dragons launched themselves from the bay and took over the sky. (The title of the book is from an ironic ad campaign assuring humans that they can still command the heavens with their aircraft.) In the subsequent fifty years the big lizards have terrorized the place, igniting buildings at random, seemingly uninterested in communication, their goals unclear.  The result? “[The] dragons had hollowed out the city’s center, its stabilizing core, and now all that was left were the high and the low, the opulent and the destitute, the chosen and the damned, those incarcerated by misfortune or the state–and those trapped in gilded cages of their own making.” The relevance to our current economic divide is plain.

Representing the tenaciously clinging elites are two families, the Ripples and the Dahlbergs. (Any Delanyesque echo in that last name?) Duncan Ripple is the self-centered shallow scion on the one hand, while arrogant, prissy and self-admiring Swan “Swanny” Dahlberg represents the other. The families have determined to yoke their fortunes by marrying Duncan to Swanny. But they do not count on fate intervening. Duncan’s aircraft goes down on a garbage island where he encounters Abby, of trash. They fall in love and Duncan brings her back to the city.

The rest of the tale charts the hectic, hurtful, hilarious, hubristic fall of both houses. Duncan and Abby end up apprenticed to an enigmatic firefighter named Trank, while Swanny fiinds herself the moll of Eisenhower “Howie” Sharkey, the crime boss of Torchtown, whose drug sales of “chaw” fund a kingpin lifestyle. Their conflicting, cooperative exploits will gradually bring everyone to deeper if unsatisfying self-knowledge and, perhaps, a way to de-dragonize the city.

Smith builds up the fine details of all her characters with endearing strokes, even though they are, pretty much to a soul, utter jerks. Watch horrified as Duncan raps a hiphop tribute to himself, and you have his essence. Maybe Holligan, the hybrid apehound, is the only noble soul. Even Abby is damaged goods thanks to her eccentric hermit’s upbringing, and her Joan of Arc naivete can be dangerous. And although Sharkey redeems his evil ways in the end, he remains unrepentant.

Smith’s language is juicy, supercharged and precise. Her sentences form a rollicking, ribald rollercoaster that delivers her fecund inventions of scene and character with maximum impact. The dialogue is often laugh-out-loud funny.

[Abby]: “When a skin-and-bone woman gives in to her lust for a machine, the Devil lets form a terrible thing.”

[Trank]: “I’d appreciate if you leave my mother out of this.”

This is such an easy and fun book to read–a testament to the joys and power of a deft and individual style–that you can miss out on the social commentary. But eventually the freight of the tale is borne home. For civilization to continue, the divisions in society must be bridged, if not erased–even if it means the pampered but dethroned Uncle Osmond Ripple has to find employment as a gondolier in the subterranean sewers of the city.

***

While the four books above display definite desires to tackle social themes in parallel with their narratives, or as subtext, they don’t necessarily foreground such concerns, nor wear their injured hearts so nakedly on their sleeves as do the writers in the hard-hitting anthology Welcome to Dystopia, helmed by the noted and accomplished editor Gordon van Gelder. Solicited outright in the wake of the 2016 election under the rubric of extrapolating worse times from current bad times, these stories display passion, craft, wit and commitment. But taken all at once, since they are generally unleavened by humor or a sense of proportion (being pretty much USA-centric and focused on short-term outcomes only), they administer a moral and civic drubbing that can leave the reader exhausted and even dismayed. Best to imbibe them in small homeopathic doses, considering their dire effectiveness in limning troubled times ahead.

Unable to synopsize all forty-five tales, I’ll point out a few that hit some major riffs common to others.

Immigrants and borders of all kinds are prime topics. In Michael Libling’s “Sneakers,” two hapless Canadians run afoul of despicable US guards carrying out a conspiracy, while in Janis Ian’s “His Sweat Like Stars on the Rio Grande,” a plot to retain rather than discourage immigrant labor is warped by a callous woman to ensnare her lover. And the quiet tragedy of a deportation splits a family in Mary Anne Mohanraj’s “Farewell.”

Women, minorities, and the poor all take it on the chin. Lisa Mason’s droll “Dangerous” imagines the process of “vagina registration.” Its epistolary format is employed by quite a few of the tales herein, perhaps betokening the bland lethality of bureaucratic messages. Ted White’s “Burning Down the House” gives a hardnosed cyberpunk account of the travails of a member of the underclass, a girl named Nicole. And TS Vale riffs ingeniously on the Boko Haram abductions of female students in “BK Girls.”

Geoff Ryman’s “No Point Talking” grounds its critical observations in a sharply realized first-person portrait of a outmoded white guy left adrift by progressive changes after California splits into multiple states. By inhabiting this character so nonjudgmentally and deeply, Ryman earns more of our sympathy and belief. Don D’Ammassa does something similar in charting the path of a suburban housewife through one day’s chores. By this simple, unforced strategy, he manages to touch in shorthand format on almost every theme of the book in “Isn’t Life Great?”

But I must confess that my favorite tales employ either a Swiftian or Marx Brothers perspective. Michael Kandel’s random “unbiased” state-sponsored killings from “Precaution at Penn Station.” Jay Russell’s enthusiastic effigy demolition in “Statues of Limitations.” James Morrow’s look at the “Nihilistic Rifle Afficionados” in “One Fell Swoop.” And Paul LaFarge’s self-improvement satire in “The Adventure of You.”

But the standout item from my vantage is Ron Goulart’s slapstick “The Amazing Transformation of the White House Dog,” which posits a canine robot spy as a check on POTUS. With its actually upbeat ending, Goulart’s story stands as the blithe cuckoo in this murder of cautionary crows.