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Books
by Robert K. J. Killheffer

The Fourth World by Dennis Danvers, Avon Eos, 2000, 336 pages, $23.00

The Memory of Fire by George Foy, Bantam Spectra, 2000, 372 pages, $13.95

In a recent essay in The New York Times Book Review on the late New York writer/artist/photographer David Wojnarowicz, Vince Passaro writes wistfully of a bygone day, not so many years ago, when American literature was "adamant about its status as opposition—an opposition that, if it was not always political, was at least unmistakably spiritual." He's referring to the work of such writers as Norman Mailer, Flannery O'Connor, and Ralph Ellison, but his description of this salient feature of twentieth-century American literature sounds an awful lot like what draws me to science fiction. "There are very few writers [today]," says Passaro, "who perceive their world and its organization and manners as intractably absurd, or lethal, or avaricious, or false—few even who can perceive the organization as contingent rather than as immutable natural fact."

Perceiving the world—our particular world, as it is now—as "contingent," a product of historical accident, merely one of millions or billions of possibilities: that's sf at its heart, imagining alternative worlds future, past, or parallel. And yet the change that Passaro notes outside the genre, a steady creeping advance of blinkered middle-class perspectives disinclined to question the basic tenets of the world, casts its shadow over sf also. "[T]he time of the American writer straightforwardly in opposition is over or nearly so," Passaro says, and when we compare the work of today's sf writers to that of Philip K. Dick, Joanna Russ, Barry N. Malzberg, Thomas M. Disch, and dozens of others from the 1960s and early 1970s, it's hard to escape the conclusion that he's speaking for our genre as well.

And it's not as though our world circa A.D. 2000 has less need of artistic opposition than it used to. The United States may be experiencing an unprecedented period of economic prosperity, but the gap between rich and poor in this country continues to widen; the gap between the rich of our nation and the poor of other nations has become so vast as to defy description. Meanwhile the human population has passed the 6 billion mark. Dozens of species of plant and animal go extinct every day. And the U.S. can (proudly?) claim 25% of the entire world's prison population—nearly one percent of the adult U.S. population is in jail.

There's no shortage of social and economic ailments, so it's a good thing that sf still produces some work that adopts the position of opposition. Exhibit A: Dennis Danvers's latest novel, The Fourth World, which shows us a future only a decade or two away, in which most citizens of the U.S. spend their time immersed in a full-sensory virtual Web while multinational megacorporations scheme to exploit the poorer populations of the Third World.

Danvers focuses on one such plot, involving a Mars colony, a nanotechnological Web interface, and the native Indian population of the Mexican province of Chiapas, who are still waging their rebellion against a Mexican government supported and directed by the U.S. In the middle of the action are a handful of generally well-drawn characters: Santee St. John, a disillusioned Web journalist out to help the Chiapanecos; Margaret Mayfield, an American activist, St. John's fellow crusader; Webster Webfoot, a low-key teenage rebel bored by the vapidity of virtual life; Webster's sometime girlfriend Starr, a satellite tech with dreams of joining the Mars mission; and expatriate Americans Zach and Edie Hayman, who run a tourist ranchero near the war zone.

What Danvers doesn't give us is any major Mexican character—we meet several locals, but they remain almost entirely invisible. Only one female Chiapaneco rebel (who's involved in an affair with Zach) and another young woman from the area (who meets Webster on a bus) have any siginificant roles to play, and we never view events through their eyes. The Mexico Danvers shows us never attains the vivid reality of Lucius Shepard's Central American settings, and his depiction of an ultra-wired future never approaches the fine detail and conceptual innovation in the best work of William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, or Pat Cadigan. For the most part Danvers constructs his future out of standard cyberpunk parts: full-immersion VR environments, the online re-creation of famous personalities, international mega-corporations using the Web to nefarious ends, a vast artificial intelligence coming of age.

In fact, the best parts of The Fourth World could exist—and perhaps more comfortably—in an entirely non- sf context. The sf overlay doesn't add anything to the story or the real-world issue at its heart; in some ways, the sf actually makes the story and the issue less compelling, less tangible. The evil plan of the megacorps absolutely requires the sf concepts of a Mars colony and an all-pervasive virtual Web, but the scheme's sheer grandiosity cannot compete with the gut-wrenching everyday cruelties taking place in Chiapas and other parts of Mexico today. The images of life (and death) on the U.S.-Mexico border collected in Charles Bowden's Juarez: The Laboratory of Our Future (which I have not seen, have only read descriptions of, and that is enough to chill the soul) make the plans of The Fourth World's megacorps look like a humanitarian relief effort.

What success The Fourth World achieves comes through its characters and their encounters. In the dissolute Zach, Danvers gives us a man real enough in his cowardice for us to cheer on when he finally decides to act. The relationship between Zach and Edie, all affection seemingly leached away by years of disappointment and inertia, possesses an exquisite verisimilitude that reaches epiphany when the relationship shifts, revealing the smoldering ember of love abiding under the ashes. Even the larger issue—the despicable nature of our country's involvement in places like Mexico—emerges most tangibly in the interactions of Danvers's characters. "You pretend to work, you pretend to live in a real place," the young Mexican woman tells Webster. "But it's all pretending. . . . I don't pretend to work. I have no choice." And that's as close as The Fourth World comes to touching the heart of the matter, the huge gap between the life of even a poor Texan like Webster and that of a Mexican peasant.

I approached The Fourth World most sympathetically—I wanted to find some contemporary sf taking on the ills of the world despite the prevailing complacency of our times. Danvers's book does that, but it only touches the surface. For the most part, Danvers offers a simplistic binary reading of the problem: modern civilization is bad, too dependent on technology, removed from the tactility of the real world; the hardscrabble life of subsistence farmers like those in Chiapas is good, despite (or even because of) the necessary work alluded to by Webster's lady friend. In the end Santee and Margaret hurl their laptop computers into the jungle, gaily anticipating "the collapse of modern civilization."

The problem with this simple anti-tech romanticism—tear it all down and return to the bliss of Eden—is that it quickly reduces itself to the absurd. Zach and Edie wax nostalgic as they work their old car back into driving shape, complaining about the computerized roads and automated cars that have taken the fun out of driving. "It's all smart, high-tech shit now. Hurry, hurry, hurry. Faster, faster, faster. I hate that shit." So is that the answer—turn the clock back to a time when you could ride the open road—say, 1960? Hardly. And a writer of that time might have seen all the cars and the new interstate highway system as the evil encroaching tech, and harked back to the days of horseback. So it would go, generation by generation, lamenting invention after invention, back to the beginnings of agriculture, or the ability to make fire. Throw it all out? That's obviously not the solution.

And of course we can't turn the clock back anyway. We can't restore the past—we can only invent the future. The real question—perhaps the most pressing question facing our civilization today—is how to create a world that combines the benefits of a high-tech culture with the best parts of our low-tech heritage. A deeper exploration of these issues in a book like The Fourth World might have helped show us the way.

In The Memory of Fire, George Foy offers somewhat more in the way of envisioning an alternative, though it's far from fully developed. His near future has seen most of today's identifiable trends continue and intensify, and the power of corporations and their pressure to conform has (among other things) resulted in the creation of semi-autonomous zones called cruces in Latin America, nodes in the U.S., where an economy of barter and smuggling supports populations of artists and other misfits who reject the regimented life of the cities. It's early days yet for these nodes, though—there aren't many, and their existence alongside the larger culture requires a delicate balance.

In fact, the story we follow begins with the destruction of the cruce of Bamaca in South America and the narrow escape of one woman, Soledad MacRae, a talented musician who had but recently taken to the cruce to escape her suffocating life as a teacher at the city's Conservatory. We find her now in San Francisco, having fled north seeking refuge in the American node located there. Soledad is haunted by dreams of the final days in Bamaca, and memories of her happy time there with the revolutionary poet and philosopher Jorge Echeverria, and through them we learn how she came to the cruce, how her affair with Jorge began, how she overcame her stage fright there among the myriad street musicians, and how disaster struck this haven of freedom and creativity. But there's something more to Soledad and her dreams, and the people of the Bay Area node suspect it might bode ill for their own enclave.

Though The Memory of Fire is set no further in the future than The Fourth World, Foy gives us a much richer impression of futurity, not in fancier technology but in cultural detail. The nodes have been founded along the lines of "Hawkleyite" theory, and we hear of other social and political strains, Kropotkinites and Adornistas and Ludd-Kaczynski cells. Most of these receive little development beyond their names, but the views of Hawkley and his followers emerge in more detail. Foy also gives us poems by Jorge, descriptions of Soledad's music, and many colorful views of life in the Bamaca cruce and the Bay Area node. The impression of a different world, grown out of our own, gives The Memory of Fire a more intriguing surface than we find in The Fourth World.

Still, like Danvers, Foy depends a bit too heavily on those who have gone before him, particularly for his depiction of the Bay Area node. The debt to Gibson is almost embarrassingly large: Piles of junked cars and old computer equipment, a postmodern melange of retro-chic and digital tech, a tinkerer who builds bizarre robotic creatures out of scrap. Foy's node is the lesser cousin of Gibson's Bay Bridge enclave (visited most recently in All Tomorrow's Parties), with "hundreds of tiny workshops making . . . Wildnet encryption programs, Shift-shin recordings, hydroponic kohlrabi" and a market selling "jisi yomo, high-amp tazers, jagger triage, copied Clam Fetish spindles." There's nothing new in it, and Gibson's got a better ear for the rhythms of street culture.

At first it seems that Foy will play things as simplistically as Danvers does, setting up a strictly black-and-white opposition between the positive vibe of the cruce and the negative hum of the city. "[I]n contrast to the dark stone and black shadows of the Walled City, everything in and between the different cardinal points from which music comes here throbs with the enthusiastic frequencies of color." In the cruce there is life, in the city there is nothing.

Fortunately, as we relive more of Soledad's memories with her, we discover a welcome complexity in the cruce. It's no paradise—lovers quarrel, wives are abandoned by husbands, children go hungry. And the discussions of Hawkleyite theory—brief and cryptic enough to avoid becoming lectures—suggest a thought-provoking framework in which small communities (no larger than 10,000 people) can resist the tendency toward beaurocracy while still providing a lively enough venue for economic viability. The Memory of Fire is no manifesto, but it does toss out some ideas worth mulling over in the search for a better future.

And as the novel progresses, Foy introduces a welcome element of ambiguity, as his characters argue over their principles. Is the Hawkleyite concept a vital wisdom or an adolescent fantasy? Might it be both? Foy captures the difficulty of resolving idealism and pragmatism, of retaining grand dreams in the face of life experience, and he leaves it for the reader to expand upon the ideas his characters allude to obliquely.

The Memory of Fire offers a more satisfying examination of the problems that will face us in the next ten or twenty years, but still it shares with The Fourth World a disappointing shallowness of imagination. Foy's future may be more complicated than Danvers's, but his viewpoint remains locked into a late-20th-century American middle class rut. We see everything through the eyes of characters who don't appear to work for their livings—Soledad comes to the Bamaca cruce with city money that carries her for a long time, Jorge seems free to roam and rant at any hour of the day or night, and the Bay Area folk have top-of-the-line computer equipment, but the only time we see one of the main Bay Area characters trying to earn anything, it's by putting on a mechanized performance art piece for rich folk from the city—hardly the model we'd expect for the economic survival of the node. References are made to barter, but we never see it in action.

The laborers—the folks who do the smuggling in Bamaca, or the ones who create the "Wildnet 3-D games" in the Bay Area node's workshops—remain nearly unseen, as if to suggest that, for all the interesting talk, it's really not possible to imagine a vibrant life that involves working for a living.

It may be a trifle unfair to criticize Foy and Danvers for failing to show us a more convincing picture of life in the lower echelons of their future worlds—these are novels, not sociology texts, and they need some unusual people and events to keep their stories moving—but it would be refreshing to encounter an sf novel with a more thoroughly oppositional stance, a more complete outsider perspective, to offer a stronger antidote to the complacency that threatens to engulf us.

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