"Contemporary reality is like an overlapping set of dire science-fictional scenarios"

When I was younger, I was a flat-out science-fiction nerd. I think I have this in common with a lot of other policy wonks: there’s something about memorizing numerous details about imaginary worlds that translates well into memorizing details about the slightly less imaginary but no less bizarre worlds of Washington (and in my case, Tokyo).

Accordingly, with the news cycle in its August nadir, I couldn’t resist a post on some recent sci-fi odds and ends.

First, William Gibson, the famed coiner of the term “cyberspace,” has just published a new book — Spook Country — that like his novel Pattern Recognition is set in the post-9/11 present (early 2006 to be precise). There is some overlap between the novels, with the enigmmatic Belgian adman Hubertus Bigend serving as a facilitator for at least one plot line. I can’t say that I enjoyed SC more than PR — I thought it dragged in some places, in fact — but I have nothing but praise for Gibson’s writing style and for his sense of the present. His fictional world is populated with people, objects, and concepts stripped from our own, and it is hard not to look at our world differently after reading both of the aforementioned novels. As Gibson noted in an interview in this weekend’s NYT Magazine, “Contemporary reality is like an overlapping set of dire science-fictional scenarios.” (In SC, he tries, successfully I think, to bring the Le Carrean cold-war spy thriller into the twenty-first century, a shift that is appropriate because, as Jay Kinney observes in an essay posted at Boing Boing, we’re in the midst of a “conspiracy boom.”)

Second, I want to direct you to a review by Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker of the Library of America’s new volume of four Philip K. Dick novels from the 1960s (HT: Boing Boing). Philip K. Dick was one of my first great favorites as a reader of science-fiction. I was certainly a committed fan years before the explosion of interest in his writing that has followed in the wake of the latest round of films adapted from his novels and stories (most of which aren’t particularly good, I should add). Gopnik’s review is serviceable but I regret that he passed over what I think is Dick’s best novel, Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said on the way to discussing either his grand epiphany or his descent into madness, depending on your point of view.

The gist of Gopnik’s review is that in Dick’s novels the focus is not on wondrous new technologies but rather on how frail, immutable, mean humanity will suffer the same faults regardless of our technology: “Although ‘Blade Runner,’ with its rainy, ruined Los Angeles, got Dick’s antic tone wrong, making it too noirish and romantic, it got the central idea right: the future will be like the past, in the sense that, no matter how amazing or technologically advanced a society becomes, the basic human rhythm of petty malevolence, sordid moneygrubbing, and official violence, illuminated by occasional bursts of loyalty or desire or tenderness, will go on. Dick’s future worlds are rarely evil and oppressive, exactly; they are banal and a little sordid, run by a demoralized élite at the expense of a deluded population. No matter how mad life gets, it will first of all be life.” (One of my problems of Blade Runner is that for all the grime, it left out a more interesting concept from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?: kipple, “unwanted or useless junk that tends to reproduce itself.”)

(Incidentally, for more background on Philip K. Dick, as a high school student I did a phone interview with Frank Bertrand, a sort of guardian of Dick’s legacy, who posted the interview online.)

What does it say about our age that science-fiction writers, long dismissed as mere genre hacks by the mainstream literary establishment, often have more to say about the way we live now than that establishment? (Look at how Second Life has leaped straight out of the pages of Neil Stephenson, another favorite of mine.)

Anyway, apologies for the nerd moment. Back to your regularly scheduled programming.

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