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2084 Paperback – September 11, 2017
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"Neverworld Wake" by Marisha Pessl
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Sandison has chosen well because there is a lot of variety and not a bad story in the collection. One or two I found hard to understand and some appeared to overestimate our development capacity over the following sixty seven years. Every story was the thought-provoking.
Sadly, the other common theme was that they were all gloomy about our future. There was very little humour and not much hope that tomorrow can be better than today. In particular Saudade Minus One was bleak and Fly Away Peter was very dark.
If I had to name two favourites, I would have to recommend Percepi by Courttia Newland which covers the launch of Buddy 3000i, the latest in a line of house robots. The tale compares it to a current day iPhone launch but the consequences are much worse.
The other stand-out was the final story, Christopher Priest’s Shooting an Episode which is the ultimate combination of today’s passions for reality TV, gaming, gambling and social media.
As an exercise in repeating the ideas of 1984 this book really succeeds; it will challenge your thoughts about the future and about the present time. I am pleased to award it four and a half stars.
Book Reviewed on Whispering Stories Book Blog
*I received a free copy of this book, which I voluntarily reviewed
Only one of the fifteen stories appears to be an actual sequel. In Jeff Noon’s ‘Room 149’, the hero roams an old satellite, trying to gather lost elements from the lives of people who disappeared under the regime of the original Big Brother. ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ is, among many other things, a love story and so too is ‘Room 149’, via a spooky quantum link that reveals the influence of the past, even when titanic forces have worked to destroy it. There is a profound sense of almost desperate regret running through this story, which is brilliantly framed by its setting on a orbital archive that has served its purpose and is about to be decommissioned.
‘Room 149’, like several of the other stories in the collection, touches on the tricky subject of determining truth. Similarly, ‘March, April, May’ by Malcolm Devlin follows the attempts of a group of social media users on a platform called The Space to work out whether or not one of their number, the entertainingly troublesome April, is dead, has signed off (‘downtimed’) or indeed if she ever existed in the first place. The story is full of well-observed virtue signalling and the Doublethink we all employ to process exposure to the endless atrocity we always turn out to be somehow complicit in. The Space implies both total freedom, but also vacuity, as the characters subtly and willingly follow the same path as Winston Smith in the Ministry of Truth, carefully retro-writing Big Brother’s speeches after he has made them so they’re more prophetic.
Cassandra Khaw looks at this political process actually taking place in ‘Degrees of Elision’ as an unnamed apparatchik edits archive footage, not to change the words so much as the mood; a recognition of the contemporary triumph of emotion over reason. The story is written like a film noir script with references to ‘reframing’, and is well-titled: ‘elision’ can mean omission or insertion. It’s a duality suited to the wholly compromised central character as he attempts to impose work processes on his personal life with markedly less success.
Transformation is a major theme in both the original novel and the short story collection. Orwell’s book famously begins with a clock striking thirteen, and there is a piercingly relevant question about whether the year events in the novel take place is really 1984 at all. Meanwhile, Winston’s hatred for Big Brother and love for Julia exchange places with the same grim inevitability as the switching of Oceania’s alliance with Eurasia to Eastasia (and back again). 2 + 2 = 5 because, as O’Brien says, “We control the laws of Nature”.
Many of the stories in ‘2084’ involve nature and control, or lack, thereof and the transformations that result. Desirina Boskovich’s ‘Here Comes the Flood’ combines contemporary themes of climate change, refugees and generational hatred with a post-Orwellian reality TV justice system. A family lives in a leaky city that is slowly failing to stop catastrophic water ingress following the expected huge rise in sea levels. Displaced persons (DisPers) from outside the city wage a drearily familiar war of terrorist attrition, while the old guard (millennials from our time) lament the days when you could just shoot them. The city determines the right to breed according to a lottery, a similar luck-based system that lies behind what passes for jurisprudence when Gran is summoned to a televised court hearing for failing to prevent humanity’s current predicament. This trial, at once very funny and steeped in despair, uses as evidence images from the past, aka the ‘deep web’. These show Gran as a young woman in 2017 or thereabouts conspicuously consuming the goods whose production has so depleted the Earth. It’s this last element, in which data is presented as a kind of geology, that related this story to many of the others, particularly “Room 149’ and ‘March April May’. Here though it’s the meaning and emotion linked to the images that has changed, from joy at the time to guilt in the future.
Refugees and the theme of transformation inform Dave Hutchinson’s ‘Babylon’. ‘Babylon’ shares with ‘Here Comes the Flood’ the idea of a first world continental fortress against those desperate to escape the predations of climate change and resulting poverty. Its hero, Da’uud, hails from ‘War-torn Somalia, where even the populace could not be certain, from year to year, who was running things, or if things were even being run at all.’ ‘Babylon’ follows Da’uud’s journey and that of the technology he uses to gain access to Fortress Europe. I won’t give the twist of how he does this away; suffice to say that appearance and reality change places in a manner that gives literal credence to O’Brien’s claim to controlling the laws of Nature. It also has in common with ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ the aspect of a subversive political thriller, although with a more ambiguous ending. Da’uud may not be destroyed in as obvious a way as Winston Smith, but is he still Da’uud?
‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ does villainy so well its antagonists are part of our language: from the treacherous shopkeeper to the harsh genius O’Brian; from Big Brother to Winston himself as he willingly becomes the thing he hates.
Prize for most hateful bastardy in ‘2084’ goes to the mysterious organisers of EJ Swift’s ‘The Endling Market’. Like Big Brother, we do not meet them, but their facile pronouncements and almost mindlessly evil deeds inform every aspect of the story. The Endlings of the title are the last animals of a species, particularly beautiful ones like snow leopards. The Endling Market peddles cod-Chinese nonsense about the properties of wild animals, especially the predators we so fear and admire despite our slaughter of them to extinction. Here’s a bit from the sales pitch for a sawback angel shark: ‘Sawbacks are particularly effective against vengeful spirits, coastal inundations and drowning’. There’s climate change and rising sea levels again, as well as the dig at collective guilt with ‘vengeful spirits’, because the Endling Market has only come about because of human predation over many years. Like ‘Degrees of Elision’ this story has a powerful media theme; as well as the Endling Market ads, it describes the abortive attempt to film a snow leopard, takes the form of an interview and is thus a few removes from reality.
Further out still are the characters in Oliver Langmead’s ‘Glitterati’, adrift in a rarefied media universe as untethered from the actual world as O’Brian’s soap bubble. If you’ve ever found yourself reading the ‘Standard’ because you’re on the late train and too pissed to do anything else, you may have noticed the anachronistic ‘society pages’, filled with the vacuous, entitled muppets we’re all meant to aspire to. Well, ‘Glitterati’ puts them in charge of the world. While there’s much sly humour at work in the collection, ‘Glitterati’ is the only actual comedy, which is perhaps just as well. A grotesque tale of those at the far reaches of reason, it’s also very touching in the way it depicts its hero’s terror at putting on the wrong coloured suit one morning. The rules of this asylum-in-anything-but-name are as random and absurd as anything Winston Smith cuts and pastes together in the Ministry of Truth. The last line is very affecting too, harking back to themes of memory and significance explored elsewhere in the collection.
There’s another great joke in Anne Charnock’s ‘A Good Citizen’, in which there is a compulsory referendum every week. Whether these referenda actually change anything is never made clear; they seem to focus on making small adjustments to allowances. However, the offer of euthanasia to life-term prisoners taxes the decent but naïve heroine who appears to want to do her civic duty, but really just wants her thoughts to herself. Her friend Roly has a good solution: he always just votes for Option 1. Who is right, really? That Roly ends up kicked out of his flat and sent to a grim dorm suggests it isn’t him. ‘But we haven’t taken a vote’ blurts the narrator, as if that would make a difference. There are also sly digs at things like ‘fitness fascism’ and ‘A Good Citizen’ is not the only story in the anthology to show how we have absorbed Orwell’s language and made it acceptable with irony that quickly wears thin. Although life for the narrator is not exactly pleasant, this subtle tale keeps the grinding misery in the background; like our own likely near-future, it’s similar to now but just a bit more rubbish.
I’ve mentioned the love story and thriller elements of ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, but it is also superlative horror; indeed, for me among the best ever written simply because of its lacerating emotional and political honesty. At the other end of the horror scale from the bleakly familiar confusion of ‘A Good Citizen’ is ‘Fly Away, Peter’ by Ian Hocking. Sometimes you feel an author needs a really good cuddle, but it probably wouldn’t help in this case. If ‘The Endling Market’ deals in distorted bits of folklore, ‘Fly Away, Peter’ is ‘Hansel & Gretel’ filtered through a dystopia informed by that famous ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ image of a boot stamping endlessly on a human face. What makes ‘Fly Away, Peter’ so devastating is its understandable message of how brutality and abuse will always beget more of the same, in ways that can never be predicted. Worse still is the profound empathy, even sympathy, we feel for all the characters. I had to have a lie down after this one.
Tales involving artificial life are always a good means of exploring humanity, or the lack of it, and there are three such stories in ‘2084’. ‘The Infinite Eye’ by JP Smythe is about an unemployed man called Pietro who signs away his physical self in order to blend his mind with a surveillance drone. This story echoes ‘Babylon’ and ‘Here Comes the Flood’ in that Pietro is an immigrant and thus unemployable because however well he completes the required forms he is never accepted. The fake camaraderie of his notional employer, Adam, reflects the chapter in ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ in which Winston observes that the most important element of the fact that half the population’s children are without shoes is that the Ministry of Truth knows about it. That caring/not caring Doublethink becomes a problem for Adam once Pietro finds ways to make the surveillance machinery work for him There’s hope in the proles all right, but is it hope of the approved sort?
The blend of human and machine goes further in Irenosen Okojie’s ‘Saudade Minus One (S-1=)’. The title reminds us of the nonsense maths of ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ and the story inhabits an eerie hinterland informed by the kind of reality in which 2+2 really does equal 5. Identical boys are dispatched across a region of North America that feels post-apocalyptic but could just be Alabama. A woman who seems haunted by more than just memories is expecting him, and they begin a strange, vulnerable relationship on a ranch inhabited by her stillborn children, brought back to life as cyborgs. Despite that image, this story is not horror in the ‘Fly Away, Peter’ is, although both narratives deal with maternal loss. Rather it inhabits a dreamy physical and emotional landscape that feels weird not so much because of the human/machine blend itself but because of the characters’ acceptance of, or perhaps resignation to, the status quo.
The ending of ‘Saudade Minus One (S-1=)’ brings to mind the work not just of Orwell, but of a later author who similarly blends everyday bleakness, technical innovation and penetrating foresight: Philip K Dick. Courttia Newland’s ‘Percepi’ goes further in this direction with a full-on robot uprising, although no one reading it can blame the robots because, like Orwell’s proles or immigrants in our contemporary Western societies, they do all the really awful jobs no human wants to do. ‘Percepi’, as the title implies, really messes with reality or at least our perception of it. This is a deliberately dizzying story that speeds up as it goes in the same way our culture is doing. Clever signposts like the reference to ‘Metropolis’ – a blonde female revolutionary is replaced by an identical robot – prevent the reader getting too lost, but there’s a very science fictional sense of dislocation at work. You want to say, ‘stop before it’s too late’ but, of course, it already is.
Thus we find ourselves in the deserted theme park of Aliya Whiteley’s ‘Uniquo’, which takes the ‘Big Brother as entertainment’ idea to its ridiculously logical conclusion. This story has in common with ‘Here Comes the Flood’ the theme of generational conflict. ‘Uniquo’ includes the line ‘Fear of youth is quite common among the elderly’, although significantly it’s something protagonist Sally’s psychiatrist says in a flashback. As with the chronological ambiguity of ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, people in this story seem to have lost touch with time. It isn’t even clear if Sally is that old; she acknowledges that age has less to do with passing years than an accumulation of knowledge that makes everything terrifying. This story has real resonance after recent political decisions by Daily Mail-reading Brexit supporters of an advanced age, who find they rather like the fascism their parents died fighting against. Like the old Uniquo rollercoaster in the ‘2084’ story, Nazism is still inexplicably popular after all these years.
Another thing guaranteed to get your average Telegraph subscriber foaming at the mouth is lolspeak; that convenient distortion of language favoured by the young for convenience when using mobile devices. Is lolspeak a harbinger of the Newspeak of ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’? Newspeak is Big Brother’s way of controlling not just language but the thoughts it informs, while in ‘2084 Satoshi AD’ some of the condensed lines are from Francis Ford Coppola’s film ‘Apocalypse Now’, itself adapted from the novel ‘Heart of Darkness’ by Joseph Conrad. The entire story is like this; a textual kaleidoscope of ironic references that open out into a kind of linguistic free-association. Instead of sentences compressed into words, we have entire films condensed into fragments of a story. Is this approach in any way better than Newspeak though? Well, the narrative of ‘2084 Satoshi AD’ has much in common with ‘Saudade Minus One (S-1=)’ in its blend of human and machine characters, its enigmatic, numerical title and final resolution. However, the emotional payoff of ‘2084 Satoshi AD’ is very different; like ‘The Infinite Eye’ we sense that here is a revolution that might actually work.
Christopher Priest’s ‘Shooting An Episode’ ends with a resolution that is in no way final; a sense that, as in the tonally opposite ‘Glitterati’, the point of the whole thing is merely to temporarily distract its lesser characters from some even greater horror. ‘Shooting An Episode’ takes the current TV reality Big Brother format and extends it to its logical conclusion, which is that instead of residing in a studio, cameras follow contestants around the country in ‘tours’, which always go profitably wrong. Everywhere is now the studio, with ‘players’ engaging with the drama in search of ever-greater ‘reality’, via VR headsets. The unnamed narrator is dispatched to a bleak, post-industrial town to cover a tour, and ends up in a moral quandary posed by someone who is simply more committed than her. As with many of these stories, the protagonist does her job through lack of any meaningful choice. Instead of Big Brother’s iron grip, the narrator exists in a state of ennui every bit as debilitating. Freedom is slavery, indeed; for we are all Big Brother now. Rejoice.