Future Dystopia

The near future has been laid out for us recently by a number of authors.  In several new novels, fiction readers have been offered a glimpse into visions of the years to come.

It ain’t pretty, my friends.

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan.  This novel spans the past, present and future.  Running Girl and I both found the final, future chapters extremely intriguing.  One takes place in a desert community (presumably Las Vegas) where golf courses, lawns and other victories over sand have gone away.  The vestiges remain as memories in the adults’ minds.  The children have no idea what life was like before water was plentiful enough to waste on such trivialities.

The final chapter takes place in Manhattan.  It is early January and the trees are already in bloom.  The weather is already into the 90s, and New Yorkers going outside must protect themselves with shields to ward off the harmful effects of the sun in a world without (or with a severely compromised) ozone layer.  The island of Manhattan is surrounded by seawalls dozens of feet high to keep the rivers surrounding the metropolis from coming in.  Obviously, this is a reference to the melting of the polar ice caps.  The result is a sort of New Orleans-y feel to the place.  Except for the fact that helicopters hover overhead 24 hours a day in a state of constant alert for the next threat to security.  Nevertheless, New Yorkers attempt to go about their lives normally.

Jennifer Egan’s collection of short stories is incomparable.  Their is a chain of characters linking one story to the next.  Egan’s dialogue is among the best I have read in years.  RG and I highly recommend this work.

Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart.  America has defaulted.  In an effort to protect her investments, China has created an “American Restoration Authority” complete with a puppet President.  However, all real power rests with the Secretary of Defense, who answers directly to the chairman of China’s Central Bank.  Prior to the fall, the U.S. apparently engaged in a warlike incursion into Venezuela (presumably seeking oil) and suffered a major defeat.

Loosely modeled on George Orwell’s 1984, Shteyngart uses comedy to recount a love affair in bad times between the hapless Lenny and the lovely Eunice.  Like all other citizens, the pair wear devices called apparati, a sort of super smartphone device, that allow the wearer to share with all others nearby their inner monologue while providing a ranking as to categories such as “hotness” and “fuckability.”  Telephone poles no longer serve their intended purpose as everything is now wireless.  Instead, monitors have been mounted on them to announce the credit scores of all passersby.  Don’t forget, this is critical in a state which has crumbled financially and is now basically in receivership.

Oh, and books don’t really exist any longer.  They’re referred to as “historical textual artifacts” and young people have been brought up to believe that bound volumes smell bad.  Adults no longer read.  They scan.

Normal life proceeds until it doesn’t anymore.  China’s patience with our infantile needs wears out and the “rupture” takes place.  In the end, the United States of America ceases to exist altogether.  It is replaced by various, stable financial interests such as Norwegian bank funds.

‘Terrifying yet amusing’ is the best way I can describe this book.  Like Egan, Shteyngart is a very talented young literary light.

Twenty Thirty: The Real Story of What Happens to America by Albert Brooks.  I have not yet read this book.  I heard Brooks interviewed by Terry Gross on Fresh Air about his new novel.  Rather than give you my third-hand account of what I think Brooks was saying during the radio interview, here is an excerpt from the Los Angeles Times’ review of the work:

Alhough written by filmmaker-comedian Albert Brooks, the events of his near-futuristic novel “Twenty Thirty: The Real Story of What Happens to America” are pretty dire: Los Angeles gets hit by a cataclysmic earthquake, and the country’s credit is so bad that the president of the United States is forced to cut a deal whereby the Chinese rebuild L.A. in exchange for half-ownership of the city.

Meanwhile, on the good news-bad news front, cancer has been cured. Except that now seniors are the target of animosity from splinter groups of the young who are increasingly resentful that “the olds” are living longer, healthier lives and hogging the future.

Brooks himself is approaching full Social Security eligibility, which may explain why his imagination runs to an image of a lonely retiree living in 2030 with his remarkably lifelike robot Lola (she is 6 feet tall and Latino; for the record, Brooks is married and the father of two).

The 80-year-old widower, Brad Miller, loses his condo in the big L.A. quake, and there isn’t much of a safety net, for him or Lola. He ends up in a refugee camp at the Rose Bowl, and ultimately on a cruise ship that doubles as a retirement home, leaving port only occasionally and becoming the target of a terrorist plot by a cell of fed-up young folk.

That story alone is satirical and sad, and could fill a novel about the implications of a ballooning national debt and America’s slippage as a nation able to take care of its own. But Brooks is trying to write a page-turner here, with a disaster-movie-sized cast of characters.

Brooks’ real name is actually Albert Einstein.  No shit.  Like his namesake, Brooks is a pretty smart cookie.  I bet this book is worth a read.

Shades of Grey by Jasper FForde.   Yes, I realize that I used the British variant of “gray” and that I put two “f’s” in Fforde’s last name.

I am currently reading this novel.  It takes place in a land called Chromatacia, which is obviously post-apocalyptic Great Britain.  It takes place at least 500 years in the future.  Something happened (presumably nuclear holocaust) to wipe out or severely impair peoples’ sense of color perception.  In this manner, Fforde is able to construct his own particular brand of dystopian society.

The UK’s Guardian had this to say about the book:

Shades of Grey is set in a post-catastrophe world that is rule-bound, respectable and very 1950s-English (characters refer to the calamity, nicely, as “the Something that Happened”). The high-concept part is that colour works differently in this world. Different people can see different colours, and these perceptual biases have resulted in rigid social hierarchies: greens rank higher than reds; colours higher than the despised “greys”. For reasons not made clear, natural colours are waning from the world, and artificial colour is mined from pre-catastrophe relics, and synthesised to add colour to towns and gardens. Colour is not only a valuable commodity, it’s a medicine. It is also an intoxicant. Staring intently at certain shades of green – “chasing the frog”, as it is called – is the equivalent of taking drugs. And, as with drugs, overdosing can have deadly side-effects.

Of the four featured novels, Shades of Grey may be the only true science fiction work.  Thus, it may appeal more or less to you readers, depending on your tastes.

Right now, I’m about to end this post so that I can pick up the book and continue reading from page 65 where I left off.

I’ll let you know how it comes out.

— The Major


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